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<b>FALLEN SAILOR:</b>  In his 14 years of service with the U.S. Coast Guard, some of it in South Carolina, Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III was credited with saving dozens of lives during 63 rescue missions. Earlier this year, he and his crew intercepted two smuggling boats carrying almost 2,000 pounds of marijuana northwest of Catalina Island.

Coast Guard photo/Po2c Lauren Jorgensen

FALLEN SAILOR: In his 14 years of service with the U.S. Coast Guard, some of it in South Carolina, Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III was credited with saving dozens of lives during 63 rescue missions. Earlier this year, he and his crew intercepted two smuggling boats carrying almost 2,000 pounds of marijuana northwest of Catalina Island.


SPECIAL REPORT: Details Revealed in Coast Guard Officer’s Death

Also How, When, and Why Pangas Are Pushing into Santa Barbara Waters


Wednesday, December 5, 2012
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Since 2008, United States law enforcement has tracked 667 incidents of maritime smuggling along California’s coastline, a dramatic uptick from years prior due to successful crackdowns on the land border. Most of the ocean encounters involved panga boats, small, fast, stripped-down vessels often laden with marijuana and migrants that Mexican smugglers zip from south-of-the-border ports to Southern California shores.

While 3,007 arrests have been made and more than 121 tons of drugs seized over the last four years, this Sunday marked the first time that a law enforcement agent was killed responding to suspicious panga activity in U.S. waters, a sign that the sea-bound smugglers are becoming more audacious and violent in their tactics.

Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and second in command on the patrol cutter Halibut, suffered a fatal head injury when a 30-foot panga lurking in the middle of the night near Santa Cruz Island rammed his boat. From Redondo Beach, Horne was 34 years old and leaves behind a pregnant wife and small child. He was remembered by his fellow sailors as a “friend, a “confidant,” and “the glue that held our crew together.”

Two men operating the panga were arrested and charged with Horne’s death. They await trial in Los Angeles. The investigation into the incident is ongoing, and Santa Cruz Island has been shut down and evacuated of visitors and National Park Service workers as authorities comb the 97-square-mile area for evidence. Tuesday morning, several bales of marijuana were found floating near the scene, but officials didn’t say if the discovery is linked to the case. Coast Guard and National Park Service media representatives couldn’t confirm or deny reports that two suspects remain at-large on the island.

Though details surrounding the collision were initially vague, a clearer picture of what took place emerged from the criminal complaint filed Monday afternoon in L.A. District Court. Drafted by a Homeland Security special agent, the affidavit is based on interviews with 16 Coast Guard officers, a Border Patrol agent, and the two defendants.

AUX Steve Lee

A rescue helicopter flies alongside the Coast Guard Cutter Halibut. (August 29, 2011)

Shots Fired in Smuggler’s Cove

At around 11:30 p.m. Saturday night, the complaint reads, a Coast Guard C-130 airplane on routine patrol out of Sacramento spotted a recreational boat one mile from Smuggler’s Cove at Santa Cruz Island. It wasn’t moving and had all navigational lights turned off. The aircraft crew radioed the Marina del Rey–based Halibut, which was patrolling nearby.

The Halibut located the boat, boarded it, and arrested two people suspected of smuggling drugs. Though the complaint doesn’t say if any narcotics were found and provides no other information on the arrest, including the suspects’ identities, it states the Coast Guard officers found a number of extra gas barrels on board. “Based on my training and experience,” wrote special agent Joel Widell, “I believe the recreational vessel may have been serving as a source of fuel supply for an illegal narcotics or illegal alien smuggling operation.”

Shortly thereafter, the affidavit goes on, the C-130 radioed the Halibut that it had located a panga in Smuggler’s Cove. In response, the cutter launched its intercept boat — a 21-foot rigid-hull inflatable — with four crewmembers on board, including Horne. After some searching, they located the panga at approximately 1:20 a.m. They crept to within 20 yards of it before turning on their boat’s flashing lights and ordering — in English and in Spanish — those aboard to put their hands in the air.

The panga immediately throttled its engines and veered toward the Coast Guard boat, the complaint reads. The Coast Guard crewmember at the wheel tried to steer out of the way, and another officer fired his service weapon at the panga, but it slammed into the front left side of their boat, throwing Horne and another sailor into the water. The panga then sped away.

The two officers were quickly pulled from the ocean. Horne, it was discovered, had been struck in the head by a propeller. The crew administered first aid and rushed back to the Halibut, which sped to Port Hueneme in Ventura County, but Horne was pronounced dead on arrival. The other crewmember suffered a cut to his knee.

After three failed attempts to outrun the Coast Guard boat, the panga was eventually stopped at gunpoint after officers pepper-sprayed the two occupants.

During all this, the C-130 continued to track the panga as it headed south. The plane was eventually joined by a Coast Guard helicopter and a response boat, which intercepted the panga at around 5:05 a.m., 20 miles north of the United States/Mexico border. After three failed attempts to outrun the Coast Guard boat, the panga was eventually stopped at gunpoint after officers pepper-sprayed the two occupants. The driver resisted arrest, the complaint reads, and the passenger was detained without incident.

The two men have been identified as Jose “Blacky” Meija-Leyva and Manuel Beltran-Higuera. On board their seized boat — which was riddled with bullet holes, including one in front of the steering column — was a satellite phone, cell phone, handheld GPS, and a knife.

Meija-Leyva, the panga’s captain, initially waived his Miranda rights when speaking with investigators, the affidavit states. He told authorities he was taking gas to friends lost north of Los Angeles. After giving that statement, however, he asked for an attorney, and the questioning stopped.

Beltran-Higuera told officials he was a Mexican citizen and that, while in Ensenada, Baja California, he had been approached by a man offering to pay him $3,000 to bring a load of fuel to an awaiting panga boat in the U.S. He agreed and made the trip north with Meija-Leyva, but when they arrived at the prearanged location, the second panga wasn’t there, he told investigators. After about 20 minutes of waiting, they were spotted by the Coast Guard.

Little else is publicly known about the two men, including their ages, hometowns, or criminal histories. Calls to the media departments for Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were not returned, and the names of their defense attorneys were not immediately available. The men’s first pretrial court appearance was this Tuesday in Los Angeles.

By Paul Wellman (file)

A seized “super panga” sits in Santa Barbara Harbor (July 5, 2012).

In Defense of the Coast

More and more often, Mexican smugglers are using nondescript recreational boats to make landfall with their cargo, rather than run now-notorious pangas directly to shore. That was one of the main takeaways from a large gathering of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies at the Santa Barbara Harbor this July. Attended by Congressmember Lois Capps, Sheriff Bill Brown, 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, and members of the SBPD and CHP, the meeting was called in direct response to increasing pangas in Santa Barbara waters.

Just a month earlier, six men were arrested near El Capitán State Beach for trying to sneak 1,400 pounds of marijuana — worth an estimated $4.2 million — to shore. In July 2010, 15 Mexican nationals were rescued from Santa Cruz Island after being abandoned without food or shelter. More recently, three men were arrested this November north of San Miguel Island in a panga boat packed with 35 large bundles of weed.

The smuggler’s location of choice has historically been any remote stretch of sand close to main roads and highways — watched over by an on-land spotter — for quick transfers to waiting trucks and trailers.

There have also been multiple sightings and recoveries of abandoned pangas up at Refugio Beach, down near Fernald Point in Montecito, and at various points in between. The smuggler’s location of choice has historically been any remote stretch of sand close to main roads and highways — watched over by an on-land spotter — for quick transfers to waiting trucks and trailers. But with the rising use of recreational boats, authorities are concerned they could sneak straight into populated harbors.

Brown said there have been 21 panga-related incidents in Santa Barbara this year alone. Eight involved illegal immigrants; four involved narcotics. Most of those encounters had not been made public. Increasingly, Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Sergeant Mark Williams said, state and federal authorities are taking the lead on cases and interdictions are now being handled almost exclusively by a combination of personnel from Homeland Security, ICE, Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and the State and National Park Services. Most arrestees are transferred to the custody of ICE.

Though media weren’t allowed into this summer’s powwow and invitations went to top brass only — Santa Barbara Harbor officials were notably absent — Capps told reporters afterward that it was a constructive exchange of ideas and strategies that will help keep her constituents safe. She and Brown said it was their goal to better tap into federal resources already enjoyed by jurisdictions farther south — San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles counties — whose successful enforcement efforts are nudging pangas up the coast.

This Wednesday, the S.B. Sheriff’s Department was notified it will receive $50,000 in grant money as part of Operation Stonegarden, a $50-million federal initiative to reinforce border defense. Our state as a whole received $12 million to be distributed county to county by the California Emergency Management Agency. San Diego and Los Angeles counties have been given the majority of the money doled out so far.

The $50,000, Brown said, will help offset overtime costs incurred during future anti-panga missions. Capps media rep Ashley Schapitl said the congressmember is actively working to ensure local law enforcement gets its fair share from available pots of money, including the State Homeland Security Grant program budgeted at $294 million for the 2012 fiscal year.

Of all the recent panga arrest cases in Santa Barbara County — the Sheriff’s Department was unable to provide a total number — only one has been prosecuted, according to Deputy District Attorney Mary Barron. Two of the six men arrested during June’s El Capitán bust were sentenced this week: Mauricio Brito, convicted of conspiracy to commit the sale or transportation of marijuana, received 308 days in County Jail. Dieber Chavez received 180 days in jail on the same charge. Marco Rangel and Habel Herrera had been sentenced to 252 days and 308 days, respectively, but are on immigration holds. The other two men are awaiting their sentencing dates.

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Comments

Independent Discussion Guidelines

Interesting it took the panga roughly 3.5 hours (1:30am till 5:00am) to get from Smuggler's Cove to the Mexican border. Faster than I would have thought.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
December 5, 2012 at 4:09 p.m. (Suggest removal)

It is about a hundred miles from Smuggler's to the border. That is no problem with a boat that can go 40mph.

Herschel_Greenspan (anonymous profile)
December 5, 2012 at 4:44 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Another needless death. Nothing we say or do can bring this man back. But we can prevent future deaths such as his, we can end this insane war on drugs and end situations like this .
Every beach goer, especially surfers who often hike into off the beaten path breaks are vulnerable to these panga mafioso landing on our coasts. Lives are being put in danger so politicians can score points with the ill-informed, and money fills the coffers of the drug war industry on both sides of the border.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
December 5, 2012 at 4:58 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Seriously, only a tiny fraction of smugglers caught so far are even prosecuted, and the two who were got less than a year?? Imagine what that was cut down to with overcrowding. And then are they escorted to the border, so they can find a boat and start right back up?

eddiekd (anonymous profile)
December 5, 2012 at 5:14 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Thanks HG. I drew a straight line from Smuggler's Cove to San Diego using Google Earth - it's 160 miles. So if those Panga boats can do 40+ mph, a 3.5 hour run seems plausible.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
December 5, 2012 at 6:06 p.m. (Suggest removal)

One thing we're forgetting is they also carry human cargo. Even if the War on Drugs ended this midnight, this would still be an issue. Don't kid yourself into thinking that any illegal aliens smuggled in are all Mexican, Central or South American; there is a high volume of Chinese illegals as well.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
December 5, 2012 at 6:23 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Strange to have such a high-powered meeting at the SB harbor and not to have the waterfront department and its Harbor Patrol involved. That's especially so with recreational boats now involved. Is the sheriff's department expanding into coastline patrols?

at_large (anonymous profile)
December 5, 2012 at 7:09 p.m. (Suggest removal)

It does seem weird that beaches are so few and far between. No I'm not asking for our beaches to be militarized, far from it. But a harbor like SB seems like a natural place for a station. I was also surprised to read the injured men were "rushed to Port Huneneme" when there are other hospitals (i.e. Cottage) they could've been taken to. Ultimately the blame for the injuries and death belong to the smugglers but still..

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
December 5, 2012 at 7:14 p.m. (Suggest removal)

*bases few and far between

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
December 5, 2012 at 7:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

@KV: it's about half the distance, and a nearly straight shot, from Smugglers Cove to Pt Hueneme as compared to SB harbor, or Goleta.

hodgmo (anonymous profile)
December 5, 2012 at 9:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Thanks Hodgmo, I still forget we face South.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
December 5, 2012 at 9:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

My condolences to this wonderful man's wife, children, and all his family and friends. This was a needless loss, and so tragic.

patrick58 (anonymous profile)
December 6, 2012 at 7:55 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I was going to stay out out of this, but WooWoo is just too provocative. Regardless of whether or not one beleives that recreational drugs should be legal (meth? really?), or that the drug war is a huge waste of human and financial capital, there is no excuse for sociopaths to murder people. Those two panga boat operators, if proven guilty, should spend the rest of their lives in prison and considered themselves lucky that they got pepper sprayed and not hosed with M-70 machine gun fire. We need to reassess our drug policy in the the USA. However, sociopathic criminial murderers need to be put down like rabid dogs, without mercy.

Eckermann (anonymous profile)
December 6, 2012 at 9:43 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Be patriotic and support California agriculture instead.

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
December 7, 2012 at 9:10 a.m. (Suggest removal)

when WooWoo appears, woohoo bail the thread

DrDan (anonymous profile)
December 7, 2012 at 10:48 a.m. (Suggest removal)

When DrDan appears, put your left leg out.

Kingprawn (anonymous profile)
December 7, 2012 at 12:47 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Woowoo, as far as I am concerned, aiming your panga straight at a much smaller inflatable vessel and ramming it, is tantamount to premeditated murder. I honestly wish the pursuing coast guards had just shot those murderers and saved us the expense of the judicial process.

blackpoodles (anonymous profile)
December 7, 2012 at 1:04 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Sorry, but shooting suspected aliens on sight is still illegal whether in the desert or on the ocean at night.

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
December 7, 2012 at 4:53 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I'd like to point out that the panga collision with the coast guard dinghy could have been an accidental collision as boats are kind of slow in making turns.. the boats operator may not have intended to ram. has anyone even considered this?
they may have just been trying to get away.
what did happen is pretty horrible though, and all because marijuana is illegal.

GluteousMaximus (anonymous profile)
December 8, 2012 at 7:15 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I do think Gluteous has a good point. By purposefully ramming the coast guard boat the smugglers risked greatly damaging their own boat and also perishing at sea. Incompetence at the helm is more likely than homi/suicidal behavior but ya never know...

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
December 8, 2012 at 7:20 p.m. (Suggest removal)

what if both boats accidentally turned in the same direction to avoid one another? it happens, even with shopping carts at the grocery store. I'm not sticking up for smugglers, just pointing out the apparently not so obvious. when you are in a big hurry things often go horribly wrong without anybody having time to re-correct their course and the unintended consequences can be the loss of life.
perhaps the author of this article could try to ask these questions of the boats operators with a telephone interview by calling the detention facility where they are being held?
now that would be some exemplary journalism.

GluteousMaximus (anonymous profile)
December 8, 2012 at 7:49 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"Most of those encounters were not made public"

Why is this?

oh..election year

jshir (anonymous profile)
December 12, 2012 at 7:51 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I don't know what you guys are smoking, but please put down your joint long enough to clear your heads. If you believe this was an accident, I have a beautiful bridge to sell you. Honestly, did you read the article about how much effort it took to subdue these guys? I stand by my earlier comment.

blackpoodles (anonymous profile)
December 12, 2012 at 8:09 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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