Federal prosecutors have charged two Mexican nationals in connection with the death of a Californian Coast Guard officer.
Jose Meija-Leyva and Manuel Beltran-Higuera both face charges of killing an officer of the United States while that officer was engaged in his official duties.
Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, 34, of Redondo Beach was thrown from his U.S. Coast Guard vessel when men operating a panga boat rammed into it. Horne sustained traumatic head injuries from hitting a propeller and was later pronounced dead by paramedics, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Horne was a 14-year veteran of the Coast Guard, serving at the Emerald Isle, Humboldt Bay and Charleston stations and aboard USCGC Dallas. He is survived by his wife and young son.
Thom Mrozek, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said both Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera appeared in federal court in Los Angeles on Monday afternoon and will be held without bail until their Dec. 21 arraignment, when they are expected to enter pleas.
Meija-Leyva is being represented by deputy federal public defender Jeffrey Rosanswank, and Beltran-Higuera is being represented by Stephanie Ames.
The criminal investigation is being conducted by the Los Angeles Border Enforcement Security Task Force in San Pedro, which investigates the smuggling of narcotics and illegal aliens into the United States.
The affidavit was written by Coast Guard Investigative Services Special Agent Joel Widell, who works with the task force. He wrote that smugglers will often bring drugs or illegal aliens into the country by boat and unload into waiting vehicles at meeting spots.
Around 1:20 a.m. Sunday, the Marina del Ray-based Coast Guard Cutter Halibut was investigating a 30-foot, open-bowed panga boat suspected of smuggling narcotics or illegal aliens when the four officers aboard got into a small, rigid hull inflatable boat to get closer. They had already found a recreational vessel with extra fuel containers — perhaps a refueling station for smuggling operations — near the island, initially spotted by a Coast Guard airplane.
When the officers approached the boat in Smuggler’s Cove and identified themselves as law enforcement, the men operating the panga boat rammed their boat into the small Coast Guard vessel, which caused Horne and another man to fall overboard. Other officers tried to avoid the collision, and one fired a service weapon at the oncoming panga boat, according to authorities.
The panga boat crew fled the scene and was followed by a Coast Guard airplane until the crew was intercepted around 5 a.m. by a Coast Guard vessel 20 miles north of the Mexico-United States border. The two men were held at gunpoint, and the driver was pepper-sprayed to stop him from driving the panga boat away from authorities, according to the affidavit.
Authorities found a satellite phone, knife, handheld GPS and cell phone on the panga boat, but there wasno mention of drugs or other contraband.
Meija-Leyva waived his Miranda rights and said he was captain of the boat, and he was taking gasoline to some lost friends north of Los Angeles, according to the affidavit.
Beltran-Higuera said a man offered him $3,000 to transport a load of gasoline to a waiting panga boat in the United States, and the captain was later identified as Mejia-Leyva, the man with whom he was arrested. They were going north to transfer fuel to another panga boat, he told authorities.
In July, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown and Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, met with the U.S. Coast Guard and Homeland Security to ask for federal help with the problem of maritime smuggling. At the time, Brown said that 16 boats had been found ashore within the last year, mostly abandoned but with evidence of carrying contraband.
Panga boats are typically 30 to 35 feet long, open watercrafts with multiple outboard motors which have become increasingly popular to smuggle contraband to the United States from Mexico. Later that month, federal agents found a panga boat off the Gaviota Coast and arrested 13 men. Border Patrol agents also seized 5,000 pounds of marijuana.