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Smuggler gets life for ramming boat, killing Coast Guardsman

LOS ANGELES — The Mexican man convicted of killing a veteran U.S. Coast Guard officer after ramming a panga into his boat off the Santa Barbara coast was sentenced Monday to life in federal prison without parole.

Jose Mejia-Leyva, 42, was convicted of second-degree murder and six other federal counts in the 2012 death of Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, who officials said was the first Coast Guardsman slain in the line of duty since 1927.

Prosecutors had argued for the life sentence, citing Mejia-Leyva’s previous smuggling and narcotics-related convictions in both the U.S. and Mexico, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office.

“Defendant had a choice to simply flee and attempt to evade capture, but chose to aggressively attempt to disable the Coast Guard small boat before making his getaway,” prosecutors wrote to the court. “Such a callous criminal calculus cannot be tolerated.”

A second man who was aboard the panga, Manuel Beltran-Higuera, 44, was convicted of lesser charges in connection with Horne’s death. He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

Horne, 34, of Redondo Beach, was killed in an operation that began the night of Dec. 1, 2012, after a Coast Guard airplane spotted a suspicious vessel about a mile off Santa Cruz Island.

As Horne’s cutter tracked and boarded the boat, officers spotted a second boat — a 30-foot panga, the open fishing vessel favored by smugglers.

Horne and three others boarded a smaller, inflatable craft and headed toward the panga, according to a federal affidavit filed after his death. As the guardsmen approached the vessel — which was floating in the water, its lights off — they turned on their boat’s blue flashing lights and shouted, in English and Spanish: “Stop! Police! Put your hands up!”

The two men aboard the panga, identified as Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera, throttled the engines and headed straight for the Coast Guard craft. The two boats collided.

Horne and another guardsman were thrown into the ocean as the panga sped off. Horne struck his head on the propeller and, despite efforts by his colleagues, was pronounced dead in the early hours of Dec. 2.

Horne’s colleagues said he may have saved the life of the boat’s coxswain, whom he pushed away from the oncoming boat, instead exposing himself to the danger. That guardsman instead suffered a cut on the knee.

The panga was tracked and intercepted hours later about 20 miles north of the Mexican border, and Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera were taken into custody. Authorities believe the men were supplying gasoline to other smuggling craft along the California coast.

Horne, who was posthumously promoted to the rank of senior chief petty officer, was survived by his pregnant wife and two young sons. In February, after the jury convicted the two smugglers, Horne’s widow called the decision “the correct verdict.”

“Although nothing can bring back my husband and the father of our boys, the system worked and justice has been served,” Rachel Horne told The Times. “Hopefully this will be an important step in the healing process.”

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