LOS ANGELES (AP) – A Mexican national was convicted Wednesday of killing a Coast Guard crewman by ramming a 30-foot panga boat into the guardsman’s vessel as it approached Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Southern California.
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said Jose Meija Leyva was found guilty of second-degree murder of a federal officer and other charges. A second man on 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 boat’s propeller. Another guardsman suffered a knee injury.
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.
Beltran Higuera was convicted as an accessory after the fact on two counts of failing to heave to and four counts of assault on a federal officer.
A four-man Coast Guard crew was conducting a drug-smuggling investigation off the Southern California coast when it approached the panga boat 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 at about 1:30 a.m.
Horne and the other Coast Guard members were about 20 yards away, the 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 Guardsman Brandon Langdon were tossed overboard. Langdon suffered a knee injury.
The panga boat 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 boat 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 of the guardsmen, Jonathan D’Arcy, fired several shots as the panga boat raced toward the smaller vessel, while Guardsman Michael Walker attempted to steer out of the way.
Authorities said Horne, 34, was the first law enforcement official to die off the California coast since a spike in illegal activity began several years ago.
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