LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Mexican national was convicted Feb. 5 of killing a Coast Guard crewman by ramming a 30-foot boat into the vessel the crewman was in as it approached Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Southern California.
U.S. Attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek said Jose Meija Leyva was found guilty of second-degree murder of a federal officer and other charges. A second man aboard the panga boat, Manuel Beltran Higuera of Mexico, was convicted of lesser charges. Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III was knocked into the water by the Dec. 2, 2012, collision. He died of blunt force trauma when he was struck in the head by the panga’s propeller.
Horne, 34, was the first member of the Coast Guard slain in the line of duty since 1927.
Jurors in U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess’ court deliberated less than a day before convicting Meija Leyva of the murder count, two counts of failure to heave to and four counts of assault on a federal officer with a deadly and dangerous weapon. Beltran Higuera was convicted of one count of failing to heave to as an accessory after the fact and a second count of failing to heave to as an aider and abettor. He also was convicted of four counts of assault on a federal officer.
Meija Leyva faces a maximum of life in prison when he is sentenced March 12. Beltran Higuera faces a maximum of 60 years.
“We are pleased with the verdict and that those responsible for Senior Chief Horne’s death will be held accountable,” said Admiral Robert J. 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.”
A four-man Coast Guard crew was conducting a drug-smuggling investigation off the Southern California coast when it approached the panga about 180 miles northwest of Mexico. Such vessels are often used to smuggle drugs. Authorities said this one was traveling with its lights out when it was approached about 1:30 a.m.
Horne and the other members of the Coast Guard crew were about 20 yards away, the Coast Guard said, when they flashed their boat’s lights and ordered Meija Leyva and Beltran Higuera, in both English and Spanish, to surrender. Instead, authorities said, Meija Leyva gunned the boat at them.
Horne and another member of the crew, Brandon Langdon, were tossed overboard. Langdon suffered a knee injury.
The panga fled, with authorities in planes and boats chasing it for four hours before its engine died about 20 miles north of Mexico. The pair were taken into custody after being pepper sprayed.
Authorities said Meija Leyva identified himself as the boat’s captain and told them he was taking gasoline to lost friends. They said Beltran Higuera told them he was offered $3,000 to deliver gasoline to another boat, but no fuel was found.
The Coast Guard crew approached the panga in a 21-foot, rigid-hull inflatable vessel that is routinely used in drug investigations because it’s faster and more agile than larger vessels
Authorities said one member of the Coast Guard crew, Jonathan D’Arcy, fired several shots as the panga raced toward the smaller vessel, while another, Michael Walker, attempted to steer out of the way.