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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Central District of California

Monday, May 12, 2014

Men Convicted In Murder Of Coast Guard Officer Sentenced To Prison; Pilot Of Drug Smuggling Boat Receives Life Without Parole

LOS ANGELES – Two Mexican nationals who were found guilty of federal charges stemming from an incident in which a Coast Guard officer was killed when his vessel was rammed by a “panga” boat were sentenced today.

The operator of the panga boat was ordered to spend the rest of his life in federal custody after a jury earlier this year convicted him of second-degree murder in the death of Senior Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, who died in late 2012 while his boat was attempting to interdict the panga boat near Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park.

The two men sentenced today are:

Jose Mejia-Leyva, 42, of Ensenada, who 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; and

Manuel Beltran-Higuera, 44, of Ensenada, who was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after a jury found him guilty of 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 were sentenced by United States District Judge Gary A. Feess. Senior Chief Petty Officer 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.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Horne was killed during a law enforcement operation that began late on December 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 approximately 1:20 a.m. on December 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 driver 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 Senior Chief Petty Officer Horne and another officer into the water. Senior 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 as it approached the Mexico-United States border. Mejia-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera were arrested at this point.

Prosecutors argued for the life sentence for Mejia-Leyva, noting in court papers that he was previously convicted in the United States of smuggling aliens and was twice convicted in Mexico of narcotics offenses. “The seriousness of defendant’s conduct and his criminal history demonstrates that he is an established recidivist whose pattern of smuggling and narcotics trafficking only aggravates the seriousness of the crime of murder,” prosecutors wrote of Mejia-Leyva.

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

Release No. 14-060

Updated June 22, 2015