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Mexican nationals convicted in 2012 death of Coast Guardsman

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A Mexican national was found guilty of second-degree murder and other federal charges Wednesday in the 2012 death of a veteran Coast Guardsman who was fatally injured when his boat was struck by a panga off the Santa Barbara coast, prosecutors said.

Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III's 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.

The 34-year-old Redondo Beach resident died of a head injury caused by a propeller.

A federal jury convicted Jose Meija-Leyva, 42, of Ensenada, Mexico, of six additional 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, also of Ensenada, also was  convicted in connection with the officer's death, as an accessory after the fact.

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

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 ferrying marijuana or people up the coast. 

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!"

But the two men aboard the panga throttled their engines, authorities said, and headed straight for the small, inflatable Coast Guard boat. Crew members fired on the men but couldn't stop the vessel from careening into theirs, a collision that sent Horne into the water with the fatal head wound.

While receiving medical care, he was raced to shore aboard the Halibut. Paramedics met the Halibut at the pier in Port Hueneme and declared Horne dead at 2:21 a.m. on 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 as they tried to flee back to Mexico. 

[For the Record, Feb. 6, 2014: An earlier version of this post referred to Terrell Horne as an officer; he was enlisted. It also said he was the first Coast Guardsman slain in the line of duty since 1927; he was the first to be murdered. The post also has been updated to report Horne's posthumous promotion.]

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kate.mather@latimes.com

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