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Posted on February 6, 2014 | 12:30 p.m.

Men Convicted in Killing of Coast Guard Officer During Operation Targeting Panga Boat

Source: Thom Mrozek for the U.S. Attorney's Office

Two Mexican nationals were found guilty Wednesday of federal charges related to the death of a Coast Guard officer who was fatally injured in late 2012 when he was thrown from a Coast Guard vessel that was rammed by a “panga” boat operated by defendants.

Following a seven-day trial, a federal jury convicted one of the defendants of second-degree murder in the death of Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, who died while his boat was attempting to interdict the panga boat near Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park.

The two men found guilty are Jose Meija-Leyva, 42, of Ensenada, who was found guilty of murder, as well as two counts of failure to heave to and four counts of assaulting federal officers with a deadly and dangerous weapon; and Manuel Beltran-Higuera, 44, of Ensenada, who also was convicted in the two counts of failure to heave to (as an accessory after the fact in one count and as an aider and abettor in the second count) and in the four counts of assault (as an accessory after the fact).

Both defendants are scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Gary Feess on May 12.

When he is sentenced, Meija-Leyva will face a statutory maximum sentence of life in federal prison. At sentencing, Beltran-Higuera will face a statutory maximum sentence of 60 years.

Chief Petty Officer Horne, a 34-year-old Redondo Beach resident, was the first Coast Guard officer murdered while on duty since 1927.

“We are pleased with the verdict and that those responsible for Senior Chief Horne’s death will be held accountable,” said Admiral Robert  Papp Jr., commandant of the Coast Guard. “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. The Coast Guard will continue to honor the legacy Senior Chief Horne and his selfless service to our nation.”

Chief Petty Officer Horne was killed during a law enforcement operation that began late on Dec. 1, 2012, when a Coast Guard airplane identified a suspicious boat about one mile off Santa Cruz Island. After Coast Guard personnel on the Coast Guard cutter Halibut boarded the boat, the airplane identified another suspicious vessel nearby in Smuggler’s Cove on Santa Cruz Island. The airplane reported that the suspicious vessel in Smuggler’s Cove was an approximately 30-foot-long open bowed fishing vessel, commonly referred to as a panga boat.

Coast Guard officers aboard the Halibut launched the Halibut’s small, inflatable boat with four officers aboard. The Coast Guard small boat crew located the panga boat approximately 200 yards from the eastern shore of Santa Cruz Island at 1:20 a.m. Dec. 2. As the Coast Guard’s small boat approached the panga boat, the officers activated the boat’s police lights and identified themselves as law enforcement. The crew members of the panga boat then throttled the engines and steered the panga boat toward the small boat. As the panga boat rapidly approached the Coast Guard’s small boat, the officer at the helm attempted to avoid a collision by steering the small boat out of the path of the panga boat.

Despite these efforts, the panga boat rammed into the Coast Guard’s small boat, ejecting Chief Petty Officer Horne and another officer into the water. Chief Petty Officer Horne was struck by a propeller in the head and sustained a fatal injury. The other officer sustained a laceration to his knee.

After striking the Coast Guard’s small boat, the panga boat crew fled the scene.

Coast Guard aircraft followed the panga boat until it was intercepted by a Coast Guard vessel about four hours later approximately 20 miles north of the Mexico-United States border. Meija and Beltran were arrested at this point.

The investigation in this case was being conducted by the Coast Guard Investigative Service with the assistance of the Los Angeles Border Enforcement Security Task Force in San Pedro.

— Thom Mrozek is a public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office-Central District of California.

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