"I was not trying to kill my son. We were playing in the shallows," Sloane Briles told KTLA-TV on Tuesday. "I discussed it with him. We'd jump in together and just thought it would be funny, ha ha."
Two of 85 people who were on the Sunday afternoon tour saw things differently. In 911 tapes released Tuesday, the passengers expressed shock and disgust after seeing Briles toss the boy into the water.
"I'm on a boat tour called the Queen and there's a man who just threw his son overboard," a woman told an Orange County sheriff's dispatcher.
"This man has been bad on our whole trip and he's swimming back to our boat now," she said.
Sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino said Briles, 35, was on the tour with his girlfriend and two sons from a previous marriage. Amormino said they got into an argument and Briles threatened to toss the boy into the water if he didn't stop crying.
Staff members on the 42-foot boat said Briles told the boy he needed to toughen up then threw him into the water five feet below, said Charlie Maas, who oversees the tour company.
Someone on the boat threw the boy a life ring, and he was safely rescued, uninjured, by another boater. The father also jumped in to save him before swimming back to the tour boat.
Another 911 caller said she thought Briles was "drunk and violent."
Briles was taken into custody for child endangerment and resisting arrest. He denied witnesses' accounts that the boy was crying and said he had never hit his son.
His girlfriend told the New York Daily News that he was only "roughhousing" with his son as he often does and regretted his "stupid" judgment.
"His sons are his whole life," Jennifer Burrelli told the newspaper. "He would never ever do anything to hurt them on purpose. He knows now it could have gone badly. He doesn't even care about the arrest or his own name. He knows it was stupid."
She also said she and Briles were not arguing before the incident.
Both the boy and his brother were returned to the care of their mother. The couple was married in 2002 and separated in 2006 after having two children. They divorced in 2007.
Family court filings showed Briles lost his job in the mortgage industry in 2007 and got another job, but was injured and drew worker's compensation. He successfully petitioned to get his child support obligation reduced and tried for a second reduction, which his ex-wife, Christin, opposed.
"If he truly wanted to support his boys he would find a job," she wrote in the filing. She also wrote that Briles sees the boys only on his weekends and rarely calls them during his off weeks.
Briles pleaded guilty in in February 2009 to being in contempt for not paying child support and was sentenced to three years of probation, according to court records. Briles also pleaded guilty in 2011 to public intoxication.