Tuesday, December 1 , 2015, 7:30 pm | Fair 55º

Mexican Nationals Sentenced to Prison in Death of Coast Guard Officer

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper |

Two Mexican nationals involved in an incident that led to the death of a U.S. Coast Guard officer in 2012 off Santa Cruz Island were sentenced to prison on Monday.

Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne holds his son during a Christmas cruise onboard the Cutter Halibut in this undated photograph. Horne was killed early Sunday when his boat was rammed by suspected drug smugglers near Santa Cruz Island, according to the Coast Guard. (Contributed photo)
Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne, killed in December 2012, holds his son during a Christmas cruise aboard the Cutter Halibut in this undated photograph. (Contributed photo)

Senior Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III died in December 2012 as his boat was attempting to intercept a panga boat driven by the men near Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park.

The operator of the panga boat, Jose Mejia-Leyva, 42, of Ensenada, was sentenced to life without parole for his murder conviction, as well as two counts of failure to heave to and four counts of assaulting federal officers with a deadly and dangerous weapon, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Also sentenced on Monday was Manuel Beltran-Higuera, 44, of Ensenada, who received 10 years in federal prison after a jury found him guilty of two counts of failure to heave to and four counts of assault, the statement said.

In February, the men were found guilty after a seven-day trial. Both defendants were sentenced Monday by U.S. District Judge Gary Feess.

Horne, a 34-year-old Redondo Beach resident, was the first Coast Guard officer murdered while in the line of duty by smugglers since 1927, the statement said.

The incident that led to his death began when a Coast Guard airplane identified a suspicious vessel in Smuggler's Cove on Santa Cruz Island and reported that the boat appeared to be a 30-foot-long open bowed fishing vessel, commonly referred to as a panga boat, which are often used to smuggle contraband over the U.S.-Mexico border.

Horne was one of four officers who approached the panga in the middle of the night, and the officers activated the boat's police lights and identified themselves as law enforcement, the statement said.

The driver of the panga boat throttled toward the officers' boat, and a collision resulted, ejecting Horne and another officer into the water.

Horne suffered a fatal injury after he was struck by a propeller in the head, and another officer sustained a laceration to his knee. The panga boat operators fled the scene, but it was later intercepted by a Coast Guard vessel about four hours later as it approached the Mexico-United States border.

Prosecutors argued for the life sentence for Mejia-Leyva, stating that he was previously convicted in the United States of smuggling aliens and was twice convicted in Mexico of narcotics offenses. 

After the men were found guilty in February, Admiral Robert Papp Jr., commandant of the Coast Guard, said he was pleased with the verdict.

“While the conviction of Senior Chief Horne’s killers cannot make up for the loss of a family member, friend and shipmate, we do hope that the conclusion of this case provides some level of comfort and closure to his loved ones," he said. "The Coast Guard will continue to honor the legacy Senior Chief Horne and his selfless service to our nation.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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