A Santa Barbara County Parks Department employee discovered an abandoned panga boat on the shore of Goleta Beach early Friday. The boat was located less than a mile from student dorms at UC Santa Barbara.
Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said the 30-foot craft had no evidence of drugs aboard, but it had life jackets, evidence of food and clothing, and more than 15 containers of fuel.
Sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene and later turned the investigation over to the Homeland Security Department, Hoover said.
She said no arrests have been made.
The boat, found by park maintenance employees at 5:18 a.m. Friday, was a small, fiberglass vessel with one outboard motor, said Lori Haley of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE officials are handling the investigation.
The boat had 20 gas cans, 20 lifejackets and wet clothing in it, so it was possibly used to smuggle a load of migrants, Haley said.
ICE is continuously working on the issue of panga smuggling boats making their way up the California coastline and is actively investigating the boat found Friday morning, she said.
In Santa Barbara County alone, there were 20 incidents of panga boats last year. This was the first one discovered this year.
Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne was thrown from the rigid inflatable boat, which launched from the Coast Guard Cutter Halibut to approach the panga-type vessel suspected of illegal activities.
Horne, 34, of Redondo Beach, died after suffering traumatic head injuries. Other Coast Guard crews were able to stop the fleeing panga boat close to the California-Mexico border, according to the Coast Guard. Two Mexican nationals have been charged in the case.
Shortly afterward, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, and other Californian congressional delegates wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, asking to be updated on actions taken to combat the increase in panga smuggling along the coast. They also want to know more about how the federal government is working with state and local law enforcement officials.
“(Panga boats) have been found up the California coast as far as San Francisco, and due to the increase in enforcement in the Southern California region an increasing number have also been landing on the Central Coast,” the letter states. “This increase is cause for concern, especially given the possibility for these boats to smuggle more dangerous cargo, like weapons and potential terrorists.
“Unfortunately, it is hard to estimate the true prevalence of these boats as we can only count those intercepted by law enforcement or that are found abandoned on our shores. In that way, the issue could be even worse and yet we know nothing about them.”