The Petaluma pilot who was guiding a cargo ship that caused a major oil spill in the San Francisco Bay in 2007 was released from prison this week after finishing his 10-month prison term.
John Cota, 62, was released from confinement Monday after being sent to prison in October 2009 for pleading guilty to two misdemeanor environmental crimes.
"I served the first four months at a minimum security camp in Tucson and then five months at a halfway house in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco and finally the last month of the 10-month sentence under home confinement," said Cota in an e-mail to the Argus-Courier. He will now face one year of "supervised release" in which his travel is restricted within California.
Cota declined to comment further on the spill or his time in prison, citing ongoing civil lawsuits against him.
Cota was piloting the Cosco Busan on Nov. 7, 2007 when it collided with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, ripping a gash in the side of the 901-foot ship and spilling 53,000 gallons of oil into the bay. The spill killed thousands of birds, fouled the coast and harmed the local fishing economy. Investigators said Cota made several mistakes regarding the speed of the ship and the location of the bridge after the ship left Oakland in heavy fog.
Cota, who is the husband of Councilmember Teresa Barrett, pleaded guilty to the two misdemeanors in March 2009 when federal prosecutors offered to drop two felony charges that Cota had lied to the Coast Guard about which prescription medications he was taking. Prosecutors said Cota's prescriptions for sleep apnea and other health problems contributed to the incident. Cota pleaded guilty to misdemeanor violations of federal clean water and migratory bird acts, but did not admit to being responsible for the ship hitting the bridge. He was sentenced in July 2009.
Jeff Bornstein, Cota's lawyer, said that other crew members on this ship were partially responsible and requested a shorter sentence.
"Even though it was obviously a terrible accident, that is really the operative word — accident," Bornstein said Monday. "He along with others played a role."
Although Bornstein could not provide information about Cota's time in prison, he said "it was a difficult time for him and his family."
Barrett also pleaded for a shorter sentence, saying that the costs of multiple pending lawsuits threaten their finances.
After the incident, the Coast Guard modified its rules on pilots' disclosure of medications they are taking and on the minimum visibility needed to pilot a ship. Cota's pilot license was suspended by the Coast Guard in 2007, and he retired from his career as a pilot in 2008.
Cota still faces several civil suits, including one by the federal government. Attorney Walter Coppenrath could not be reached about a pending legal case in which he is representing Cota.
(Contact Philip Riley at firstname.lastname@example.org)