LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Two Mexican nationals were convicted Wednesday in the death of a 34-year-old U.S. Coast Guard officer when they rammed his search vessel with their smuggling boat near the Channel Islands.
A federal jury found Jose Meija-Leyva, 42, guilty of second-degree murder, four counts of assaulting federal officers with a deadly and dangerous weapon and two counts of failure to heave to, which is an order to stop a vessel so a federal law enforcement officer may board.
Manuel Beltran-Higuera, 44, was also found guilty of being an accessory to Meija-Leyva’s failure to heave to and his four counts of assault.
Sentencing was scheduled for May 12. Meija-Leyva faces a possible life sentence in federal prison and Beltran-Higuera faces up to 60 years of prison time.
The two men were traveling fast in a panga style boat on the night of Dec. 2, 2012, when they were spotted by a Coast Guard patrol plane.
The USCG Cutter Halibut was dispatched and Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III and two others boarded a smaller, inflatable boat to investigate.
“They fled from law enforcement for two hours, making it close to the Mexican maritime border,” Assistant District Attorney Max Shiner said.
When Horne and his crew approached, the two Mexican nationals rammed the panga boat into the Coast Guard vessel, knocking Horne into the water.
Moments later, a federal boat pulled an unconscious Horne out of the water. He died on his way to the hospital in Port Hueneme. Coroner’s officials determined he had hit his head on the panga boat’s propellers.
Horne’s murder was the first Coast Guard death while on-duty since 1927.
Customs and Border Patrol joined Coast Guard ships to chase the panga and arrest Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera. Investigators believe the two men had already dumped the drugs they were smuggling overboard.
“We are pleased with the verdict and that those responsible for Senior Chief Horne’s death will be held accountable,” said Adm. 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.
“The Coast Guard will continue to honor the legacy Senior Chief Horne and his selfless service to our nation.”
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