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Slain Coast Guard officer's widow: 'Justice has been served'

The widow of the U.S. Coast Guard officer killed when his boat was struck by a panga off the Santa Barbara coast said Wednesday that jurors delivered the "correct verdict" in convicting two men in her husband's death.

Two Mexican nationals were convicted Wednesday – one on second-degree murder – in the 2012 death of Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, who officials said was the first Coast Guard officer murdered in the line of duty since 1927.

Rachel Horne was pregnant with the couple's third son at the time of her husband's death. The boys are now 8, 3 and 11 months – the baby turns 1 next week, she said.

In a statement to The Times, Horne thanked those who helped secure the verdict.

“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.”

After a week-long trial, a federal jury Wednesday convicted Jose Meija-Leyva, 42, of second-degree murder and six other counts, including assaulting federal officers with a deadly and dangerous weapon, the U.S. attorney's office said.

A second man who was aboard the panga, Manuel Beltran-Higuera, 44, was convicted of lesser charges in connection with Horne's death.

Horne was killed in an operation that began the night of Dec. 1, 2012, when a Coast Guard airplane spotted a suspicious boat about a mile off Santa Cruz Island, officials said. As the Coast Guard cutter Halibut tracked and boarded the boat, a second suspicious vessel was spotted – a 30-foot panga, the open fishing boat favored by smugglers.

Horne and three shipmates boarded a smaller, inflatable boat and headed toward the vessel, which was running without lights. In the darkness, they turned on their blue flashing lights and shouted, in English and Spanish: "Stop! Police! Put your hands up!"

The two men aboard the panga – later identified as Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera – instead throttled the engines and headed straight for the Coast Guard craft. One officer fired at the suspects as another tried to steer their own vessel out of the way, but the two boats collided.

Horne and another officer were thrown into the ocean as the panga sped off. Their crew pulled them from the water and raced to shore, but Horne 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 by pushing him from the helm, and exposing himself to the oncoming boat. A second officer also was thrown into the water, but suffered only a cut on his knee.

Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera – believed to be supplying gasoline to other smuggling craft along the California coast – initially got away but were later arrested about 20 miles north of the Mexican border.

Prosecutors said Meija-Leyva faces a maximum of life in federal prison; Beltran-Higuera faces a maximum of 60 years. The men are scheduled to be sentenced May 12.

Horne, who spent 14 years with the Coast Guard, was posthumously promoted to the rank of senior chief petty officer. In a statement Wednesday, 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.

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Twitter: @katemather | Google+

kate.mather@latimes.com

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