- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 4, 2012

SAN DIEGO — A Coast Guardsman fired several gunshots from an inflatable boat before it was slammed by another vessel in a crash that caused the first law enforcement fatality since the smuggling of drugs and immigrants by boat began spiking along the California coast several years ago.

A criminal complaint filed Monday against two Mexican nationals aboard the suspect vessel disclosed the gunshots and other measures taken by the crew to avoid getting hit early Sunday near the Channel Islands, about 180 miles northwest of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, 34, died from head trauma after being struck by a propeller. The complaint doesn’t say which boat hit him.

Chief Horne was assigned to the Halibut, an 87-foot patrol cutter based in Marina del Rey that was dispatched after a Coast Guard plane spotted the 30-foot “panga” vessel without lights near Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the eight Channel Islands west of Los Angeles. The panga was suspected of involvement in a drug-smuggling operation.

The cutter carries a 21-foot-long, rigid-hull inflatable boat that the Coast Guard routinely uses on missions that require more speed and agility than the cutter can deliver.

Using the inflatable boat, Chief Horne and his team came within about 20 yards of the suspect vessel at 1:20 a.m. The Coast Guard boat flashed its blue lights and the crew ordered the suspects to stop in English and Spanish before the panga gunned its engine, knocking Chief Horne and a colleague into the water, the complaint states.

One of the four men on the inflatable boat fired several shots at the panga to avoid a collision, the complaint says. Another attempted to steer it out of the way, but the panga struck the front and left side of the Coast Guard boat.

One surviving Coast Guardsman was treated for a knee injury. The other two were unharmed.

Coast Guard crews followed the suspects by air and sea for nearly four hours until the vessel’s engine died 20 miles north of the Mexican border.

An officer used pepper spray on suspects Jose Meija Leyva and Manuel Beltran Higuera, who were charged with killing a federal officer while the officer was on duty.

Mr. Meija Leyva identified himself as the captain and told authorities he was taking gasoline to lost friends, according to the complaint. Mr. Beltran Higuera told authorities he was offered $3,000 to deliver gasoline to another boat that was waiting for them, but they never found it.

The complaint makes no mention of drugs being found on the boat. Coast Guard investigator Joel Widell said drug or immigrant smugglers may have been using the boat to supply fuel. .

The number of Border Patrol agents on land has doubled in the past eight years, and hundreds of miles of barriers have been erected, driving smugglers to the Pacific Ocean to bring drugs and people to the U.S. from Mexico.

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