Two Mexican nationals were sentenced Monday to federal prison for their roles in the 2012 death of a Marina del Rey-based U.S. Coast Guard chief petty officer, who was thrown into the ocean when the cutter he was aboard was rammed by a smuggling boat near the Channel Islands.
Jose Meija-Leyva, the panga’s captain, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess to life in federal prison, and helper Manuel Beltran-Higuera got a 10-year term.
Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, a 34-year-old Redondo Beach resident, was the first Coast Guard officer to be murdered while on duty since 1927.
“The person killed was kind, generous and loving,” Rachel Horne, the officer’s widow, told the courtroom, which was packed with dozens of uniformed Coast Guard personnel.
The 14-year Coast Guard veteran left behind two toddler sons and a pregnant wife who gave birth to a third boy 10 weeks after her husband’s death.
“Words cannot express our sorrow and emptiness,” the woman said as a photo of her husband and two of their sons was shown to the tearful audience.
Horne was struck in the head on Dec. 2, 2012, by a boat propeller when he was thrown into the water. Another USCG member suffered a non-life-threatening knee laceration.
He and the other injured Coast Guard member were assigned to the USCG Cutter Halibut, based in Marina del Rey.
The Halibut was rammed by Meija-Leyva’s panga traveling at a high rate of speed. Feess said Meija-Leyva smashed into the cutter in hopes of disabling it so the panga could flee.
Customs and Border Patrol and Coast Guard ships were able to chase the panga after the ramming and arrested the two Ensenada-based suspects.
The USCG Cutter Halibut had been tracking a smuggling boat off Santa Cruz Island, one of a cluster of three Channel Islands sitting off the Ventura County coast, about 30 miles west of Malibu.
A Coast Guard patrol plane had spotted the panga and another boat as it headed toward the Channel Islands without lights about 1 a.m.
The Halibut was sent to Santa Cruz Island, and had arrested two people from one boat.
The Halibut crew lowered a small, inflatable chase boat into the water, and the small federal craft activated its blue lights and siren.
At that point, Meija-Leyva changed direction and drove into the small boat.
According to federal prosecutors, a Coast Guard officer on the cutter fired several shots at the panga boat while another USCG member tried to steer the federal vessel out of the smugglers’ path.
Horne and the other Coast Guard member were thrown into the water and were immediately picked up by another federal boat. Horne was taken roughly 15 to 20 miles to the nearest dock, at Port Hueneme, where he was pronounced dead.
The murder of a federal officer is “one of the most serious offenses that can come before this court,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Max B. Shiner said, adding that Meija-Leyva continued to resist arrest “even when he had a gun pointed at his face.”
Meija-Leyva, 42, was convicted at trial in February of second-degree murder, two counts of failure to heave to — an order to stop a vessel so a federal law enforcement officer may board — and four counts of assaulting federal officers with a deadly and dangerous weapon.
Manuel Beltran-Higuera, 45, 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.
Beltran-Higuera told the court through his attorney that he was “deeply ashamed” of his actions.
His co-defendant, though, said he was not responsible for Horne’s death.
Meija-Leyva said a vessel that didn’t belong to him hit and killed the officer.
Feess, however, rejected what he called the “mystery boat” defense, telling the defendant that there was “no doubt whose boat killed this man.”