One person dies when boat capsizes off La Jolla in suspected smuggling case

A panga went to shore in La Jolla early May 20. One person died.
(Nelvin Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

15 people were taken into custody, with 10 rescued by lifeguards; the boat eventually went to shore near the Children’s Pool. La Jolla leaders call the loss of life ‘devastating.’

At least one person died and 10 others were rescued from what is suspected to be a smuggling boat that eventually capsized off the La Jolla shore early May 20, authorities said.

In predawn darkness, lifeguards used boats and at least one rescue board to pluck people from the water near Marine Street. The small panga-style boat then continued north and eventually capsized in the surf line near the Children’s Pool about a mile away. A submerged victim was found nearby and did not survive.

In all, 15 people were taken into custody from the vessel, said U.S. Border Patrol Supervisory Agent Jeffrey Stephenson.

The incident is one of at least four at-sea human smuggling attempts in San Diego in just the past week and comes nearly three weeks after three undocumented immigrants drowned when their boat crashed near Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma.

In the May 20 case, agents first saw the boat off the coast near Point Loma around 5:10 a.m. and tracked it to La Jolla, hoping to see where it was going to make landfall.

Around 5:20 a.m., an agent saw several people in the water who appeared to be in distress and called San Diego lifeguards, said Border Patrol Agent Jacob MacIsaac.

Video shot by OnScene.TV showed a Coast Guard helicopter circling overhead as lifeguards used boats and surfboards to pluck people out of the ocean.

Lifeguards rescued several people who went into the water off La Jolla from what is suspected to be a smuggling boat.
Lifeguards rescued several people who went into the water off La Jolla early May 20 from what is suspected to be a smuggling boat.
(OnScene.TV )

“When our lifeguards got at the scene, there was people in the water — we did not have visuals of anyone on the actual vessel,” lifeguard Capt. Maureen Hodges said at a news conference. “Most of the victims did have life jackets either on or were holding onto them.”

Those who were rescued were taken by boat to lifeguard headquarters, where they were met by ambulances. After being evaluated, eight patients were taken to hospitals to be treated.

“The conditions out there today were rough,” Hodges said. “We have 4- to 6-foot surf and some heavy currents.”

The panga continued heading up the coast after the group of passengers jumped off. A short time later, it went to shore at Wipeout Beach near Coast Boulevard.

That’s where a person was found submerged in the water, said lifeguard Lt. Ric Stell.

As the boat neared shore, it capsized in the surf line, Stell said.

“Usually when boats go into the surf, they flip,” he said. The boat righted itself and ended up in an upright position on the sand.

The person in the water was taken to shore and CPR was performed, but the person did not survive, said San Diego Fire-Rescue spokeswoman Mónica Muñoz.

Some people were able to make it to shore on their own after jumping off the boat.

Authorities did not release any additional information about the deceased victim or the other passengers, including ages and nationalities.

Michael Pallamary said he was awakened by the thumping of helicopters overhead and walked outside to see the water rescue unfold across the street.

“There were lots of flashing blue lights. I could see people in the water,” said Pallamary, who owns a La Jolla-based land surveying firm.

He walked a little farther north and saw Border Patrol agents rounding up more people. He didn’t learn until later that a person died.

“This morning’s event and the loss of life is a tragedy,” said San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla. “I am grateful to city lifeguards for their swift response and minimizing loss of life and injuries. Ensuring lifeguards have the staffing and resources to protect us continues to be one of my priorities.”

Claudia Baranowski, president of the La Jolla Parks & Beaches board, said: “It is devastating to hear of a loss of life on La Jolla’s beaches. We hope those injured in the accident make a full recovery. We appreciate the San Diego lifeguards for their help in the rescue and for all they do to keep people safe in the water.”

La Jolla Town Council President James Rudolph said: “A death like this is always sad and unfortunate. Our thoughts are with this deceased person’s family.”

Rudolph noted that as enforcement at land checkpoints has increased, “migrants predictably are opting for perilous panga journeys.”

The La Jolla coastline has become a common area for smugglers to land boats. However, three previous attempts in the past week have targeted the shores near Sunset Cliffs, according to criminal complaints filed in federal court in San Diego and interviews with authorities.

The first occurred early May 14. A Border Patrol agent watching the waters with an infrared camera saw a panga-style boat at about 2:15 a.m. approaching the coast below Sunset Cliffs, according to court records.

The boat landed about 30 minutes later in an area known as Garbage Beach, and the agent watched as a group of people made their way up a staircase and into the side yard of a nearby home.

Agents surrounded the home and ultimately found 14 people hiding the backyard. All were determined to be Mexican nationals.

Another boat laden with undocumented immigrants landed in the same area a day later.

The panga was spotted at about 5:15 a.m. May 15, again by an agent monitoring the coastline.

A group scrambled up the cliffs, and one person broke away and walked toward a vehicle parked nearby. The man approached the driver and asked in Spanish if he was there to pick them up.

It turned out the driver was a Border Patrol agent — wearing a ballistic vest with his badge and the agency’s insignia — who had responded to the radio call. The agent identified himself as such and arrested the man.

While handcuffed, the man tried to run away but was quickly caught, according to the complaint.

Sixteen others, all Mexican citizens, were found in the surrounding area and detained on suspicion of being in the country illegally.

On May 17, 23 people were rescued off a panga intercepted near Sunset Cliffs. In that incident, no one ended up in the water.

According to authorities, the boat’s driver ignored commands to stop. As the boat neared the surf line at Osprey Reef, its engine died and it began to drift toward rocks. San Diego lifeguards, aided by the Coast Guard, responded in a small boat and hooked the panga with a rope to pull it away from the cliffs.

Twenty Mexicans and three Guatemalans were detained unharmed.

On May 2, three people died when a boat crowded with more than 30 people capsized and broke apart off Point Loma.

The crash on the rocks near Cabrillo National Monument involved not a traditional panga but a larger trawler-like vessel. Three migrants, all Mexican, drowned. The man suspected of operating the boat, a U.S. citizen, is facing federal criminal charges.

At least 116 people have died so far this year during attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border or as they journeyed north in the interior of Mexico, according to data tracked by the International Organization for Migration.

— La Jolla Light staff writers Elisabeth Frausto and Ashley Mackin-Solomon contributed to this report.