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Suspected drug boat kills Coast Guardsman

One Coast Guardsman was killed and another hurt in the early morning darkness off Southern California’s Channel Islands when a panga suspected of smuggling drugs rammed a RIB carrying a law enforcement team.

Chief boatswain's mate Terrell Horne III, shown training, died in the Dec. 2 clash off Southern California.

Chief boatswain’s mate Terrell Horne III, 34, executive officer of the 87-foot cutter Halibut, died of traumatic head injury after the 30-foot panga struck the RIB, spilling him and another member of the team into the water. The other Guardsman, identified as Brandon Langdon, suffered a cut to the knee. Both were hit by a propeller.

It’s the first time in Adam Eggers’ memory that a Coast Guardsman has been killed in a confrontation with drug traffickers off California. “Usually these things are pretty benign,” says Eggers, 11th Coast Guard District spokesman. “This one wasn’t.”

The crew of the panga, two Mexican nationals identified as Jose Meija-Leyva — the captain, according to the court complaint — and Manuel Beltran-Higuera were charged Dec. 3 with killing a federal officer while he was engaged in his official duties, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. They were ordered held without bond. A preliminary hearing was set for Dec. 17 and their arraignment for Dec. 21.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of our shipmate,” says Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends and his shipmates. Our fallen shipmate stood the watch on the front lines protecting our nation, and we are all indebted to him for his service and sacrifice.”

Events leading to Horne’s death started at 11:30 p.m. Dec. 1 when a Coast Guard C-130 spotted a pleasure boat stopped in the water with no lights about a mile off Smugglers Cove on Santa Cruz Island. A team from the Halibut, which had been on patrol near the Channel Islands, boarded the boat and detained its two crewmembers — as yet unidentified — on suspicion of drug smuggling, according to the complaint against Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera that was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Shortly afterward the C-130 spotted the 30-foot panga — a flat-bottomed, outboard-powered open fishing boat — also stopped in the water with no lights in Smugglers Cove. The cutter Halibut launched its 21-foot RIB with a team of four aboard, and at 1:20 a.m. it found the panga 200 yards from the island’s eastern shore, the complaint says.

Motoring to within 20 yards of the panga, the crew flashed its blue law enforcement light and, weapons drawn, shouted to the two men on the panga: “Stop, police! Put your hands up!” The panga’s engines throttled up, and it aimed for the RIB, the complaint says.

The RIB’s helmsman tried to veer off while another crewmember fired several shots at the panga, which rammed the RIB on the port side forward, throwing Horne and Langdon into the water. The crew immediately recovered the two men and transferred them to the Halibut, which rushed them to Port Hueneme, where medics pronounced Horne dead.

The panga fled south toward the Mexican border with the C-130 in pursuit, keeping it under observation until a helicopter and a 45-foot Coast Guard response boat took up the chase. Running low on fuel, the panga stopped twice, evidently to try to switch fuel bladders, but both times it sped off as the Coast Guard approached.

About 5 a.m., 20 miles north of the Mexican border, the panga stopped a third time. The Coast Guard came alongside and pepper-sprayed Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera, then boarded the vessel and subdued them, the complaint says. The chase was over.

These cat-and-mouse games have become commonplace along the Southern California coast during the past year, authorities say. As federal, state and local agencies intensify their fight against smugglers along the U.S.-Mexico border, drug and human traffickers increasingly turn to maritime smuggling off California to get their cargo into the United States, says James A. Dinkins, an associate director of investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in testimony during a House hearing during the summer on Capitol Hill.

“Due to increased patrols by [the Customs and Border Patrol] and the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as a coordinated law enforcement response to this threat, smuggling organizations are now moving further out to sea and increasingly travel further up the coast before attempting to unload their illicit cargo,” he says.

Authorities have been interdicting pangas carrying drugs or illegal immigrants as far north as San Luis Obispo, almost 150 miles north of Los Angeles. In September, Customs arrested 10 Mexican nationals and three U.S. citizens in connection with a failed effort to smuggle 1-1/2 tons of marijuana into the United States from Mexico on a panga that came ashore in San Luis Obispo County.

ICE says smugglers often start their voyages in Baja California, running as far as 100 miles offshore and making their way north before turning toward land to drop their cargo. ICE says boat-smuggling interdictions in Southern California through early September resulted in the seizure of more than 114,000 pounds of narcotics — nearly four times the amount seized during all of fiscal 2011.

Horne had been a Coast Guardsman for 14 years, previously serving at the Emerald Isle, Humboldt Bay and Charleston stations and on the cutter Dallas. “Throughout his Coast Guard service, BMC Horne’s professionalism and commitment, like those before him, ensured that we were always ready to answer the nation’s call,” Papp says in a message to the men and women in the Coast Guard.

February 2013 issue.