Monday, November 30 , 2015, 11:51 am | Fair 63º

Report Concludes Panga Boat Operator at Fault in Coast Guard Officer’s Death

By Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @magnoli |

On the back of murder and assault convictions for two Mexican nationals in the death of a U.S. Coast Guard officer, Vice Admiral Paul Zukunft has released additional information about the investigation.

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 holds his son during a Christmas cruise aboard the Cutter Halibut in this undated photograph. Horne was killed in December 2012 when his boat was rammed by suspected drug smugglers in a panga boat near Santa Cruz Island. (Contributed photo)

Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, 34, of Redondo Beach sustained fatal head injuries after his Coast Guard vessel was rammed by a panga boat in late 2012. Horne was thrown into the water along with another boarding team member of the Coast Guard Cutter Halibut, and Zukunft concluded that his death was caused by the deliberate actions of the panga boat operator.

As the panga fled the scene after the collision, the boat’s outboard engine propeller hit Horne’s head while he was in the water, according to the memorandum released last week.

Jose Meija-Leyva, 42, of Ensenada was found guilty of murder, failure to heave to, and assaulting federal officers with a deadly and dangerous weapon, and could be sentenced to life in prison. Manuel Beltran-Higuera, 44, of Ensenada was found guilty of failure to heave to and four counts of assault, and faces a maximum sentence of 60 years in prison.

Both men were convicted by a federal jury after a seven-day trial and are scheduled to be sentenced May 12.

Horne was the first Coast Guard officer to be murdered on duty since 1927.

The Coast Guard Cutter Halibut is an 87-foot patrol boat that was in Smuggler’s Cove off Santa Cruz Island on Dec. 2, 2012, to provide search-and-rescue coverage. A Coast Guard aircraft told them about a 30-foot, open-bowed panga boat in the area.

Four officers got into the 18-foot rigid inflatable boat, HAL-1, and approached the panga boat as they announced themselves to the boat in English and Spanish, according to investigative documents.

The men operating the panga boat rammed into HAL-1, and one Coast Guard officer fired seven times at the oncoming boat in self-defense, according to authorities. After the two people were recovered from the water, the Halibut rushed to Port Hueneme, but Horne was declared dead at the scene by paramedics.

Several Coast Guard vessels and aircraft gave chase to the panga boat, which was eventually intercepted near the United States-Mexico border when it experienced engine trouble. The two men were held at gunpoint and the driver, who didn’t comply with officers, was pepper-sprayed when the Coast Guard boarded the panga boat, according to the investigative documents.

The men told authorities they were transporting gasoline to another boat, and authorities found a satellite phone, clothing, food, toiletries, shell casings and Mexican vessel registration on the boat. There is no mention of any drugs or other contraband found on the boat.

The Ventura County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office conducted an autopsy and found that Horne’s death was a homicide caused by chop injuries to the head.

Zukunft’s investigation found that the Halibut and HAL-1 vessels were ready for operation and crews were qualified, except the certification to fire warning shots and disabling fire had expired. He also found that the crews all performed within the applicable procedures.

The Coast Guard’s Channel Island Harbor Station and Los Angeles-Long Beach Station were changed to pursuit-level IV stations as of Jan. 9, 2013, since they weren’t when this incident happened.

The investigation came to the same conclusions as the federal jury trial: Horne’s death was caused by the deliberate actions of the driver of the panga boat, Meija-Leyva, Zukunft said.

“Tragic incidents like these remind us of the dangers our crews face every day in the fight against illicit smuggling,” he said. “We continue to mourn the loss of our shipmate and resolve to honor his legacy and sacrifice.”

Zukunft has been commander of the Pacific Area and Defense Force West since April 2012 and has been recently nominated by President Barack Obama to be the next Coast Guard commandant.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli 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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