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Mexican national convicted of murder in death of Coast Guardsman

A Mexican national was convicted of second-degree murder Wednesday in the death of a veteran Coast Guardsman thrown overboard when a panga boat rammed the U.S. vessel.

Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III's 2012 death made him the first Coast Guardsman murdered in the line of duty since 1927, officials said. Horne, who spent 14 years with the Coast Guard, was posthumously promoted to the rank of senior chief petty officer.

Horne's widow, Rachel, was pregnant with Horne's third son at the time of his death. The boys are now 8, 3 and 11 months old.

After a weeklong trial, a federal jury found Jose Meija-Leyva, 42, guilty of six additional counts, including assaulting federal officers with a deadly and dangerous weapon, the U.S. attorney's office said. A second man aboard the panga, Manuel Beltran-Higuera, 44, also described as a Mexican national, was convicted on lesser charges.

In a statement, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., commandant of the Coast Guard, said the agency was pleased with the verdict.

"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," he said.

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 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 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. Prosecutors said Meija-Leyva now faces a maximum of life in federal prison; Beltran-Higuera faces a maximum of 60 years.

In a statement to The Times, Rachel Horne thanked those involved for what she said was "the correct verdict." She said she watched the trial, "All of it."

"Although nothing can bring back my husband and the father of our boys, the system worked and justice has been served," she said. "Hopefully this will be an important step in the healing process."

kate.mather@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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