Colleagues of a U.S. Coast Guardsman killed during a weekend encounter with a panga near Santa Cruz Island remembered the Redondo Beach man Monday as a "natural leader" and "papa bear" who took pride in his job and cared for his crew mates.
Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne, 34, was fatally injured early Sunday as the 87-foot Coast Guard cutter Halibut attempted to intercept a small boat suspected of carrying drug smugglers. Officials said Horne and three crew members had boarded a small, inflatable chase boat - which is faster and more nimble than the large Marina del Rey-based cutter - to get closer to the panga when it rammed into them, ejecting Horne and another crew member into the water.
Horne, a 14-year Coast Guard veteran and the Halibut's second-in-command, was pronounced dead early Sunday morning in nearby Port Hueneme. Officials said he'd suffered a traumatic head injury, while his crew mate sustained minor injuries.
"Words can't express the respect and admiration that I have for him. ... He was my friend, my confident, he was the glue that held my crew together, and he was the experienced chief that I looked to ... time and time again," said Lt. Stewart Sibert, commander of the Halibut, as he stood outside the Coast Guard's offices in Marina del Rey on Monday facing a throng of television cameras.
He described Horne, who had worked aboard the Halibut for two years, as a "natural leader" who looked after the boat's 12-man crew "like no one else could.
But Horne took care of more than just his crew mates, said Sibert, recalling a night when the boat encountered a group of young kayakers who were lost off Catalina Island during a storm. After the crew pulled them out of the cold water and handed out blankets and hot chocolate, Sibert said, he remembered Horne's satisfaction with the work they'd done at sea.
"You could just see this look on his face, and you could tell that he was on top of the world," Sibert said.
Executive Petty Officer Kellian Whidden from the Los Angeles/Long Beach Coast Guard station said she first met Horne while studying for her command review boards. She'd needed more shipboard experience at the time, she said, so Horne had invited her to serve aboard the Halibut.
"He was a man of honor, and I was proud to call him chief," Whidden said.
The Coast Guard on Monday released pictures of Horne, who is married and reportedly expecting his second child. One of the photographs shows him smiling while wearing a blue Coast Guard baseball hat on his head and holding a baby dressed in a white fleece hoodie.
"Very sad, especially such a young person, baby coming, and holidays," a neighbor, Niurka Strong, told KABC (Channel 7) News.
Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Eggers, a Coast Guard spokesman, teared up Monday as he spoke of Horne, whom he'd gotten to know while coordinating media requests to access agency vessels. He said Horne made his boat accessible, realizing that doing so could help the general public better understand its missions, and cared about helping his crew.
"The only way I can describe it was a papa bear. That's what you have to be as a chief in the Coast Guard," he said.
Eggers, a father himself with a baby on the way, said he couldn't put the loss into words. Coming so close to Christmas, he added: "It's kind of an extra punch in the gut."
Just a couple hours after Coast Guard officials spoke publicly of their colleague, federal prosecutors announced they'd charged two Mexican nationals in connection with his death.
A criminal complaint filed Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles charges Jose Meija-Leyva, who told investigators he was the captain of the boat, and Manuel Beltran-Higuera, with killing an officer of the United States while engaged in his official duties.
According to the criminal complaint, Coast Guard officers in an aircraft located a recreational vehicle off Santa Cruz Island about 11:30 p.m. Saturday. It wasn't moving and had its navigation lights turned off, prompting a call to the Halibut, which was patrolling in the area. Crew members boarded the vessel and detained two individuals whom they suspected of drug smuggling.
Shortly afterward, it states, officers in the aircraft alerted the Halibut that they'd located a panga, without lights on, occupied by two people in the same area. Four members of the Halibut crew boarded a 21-foot inflatable boat to search the waters about 200 yards off the island. At about 20 yards from the panga, the small boat's crew turned on its flashing blue lights.
As the panga boat rapidly approached the Coast Guard vessel, the officer at the helm attempted to avoid a collision by steering it from the panga's path, while another officer on board fired several shots at the panga from his service weapon, according to the complaint.
The panga rammed into the Coast Guard's small boat, ejecting Horne and another officer into the water. Horne was struck in the head by a propeller, and was later pronounced dead by paramedics, while the other officer sustained a laceration to his knee.
Another boat subsequently intercepted the panga, whose occupants again attempted to flee. The complaint says the driver was detained after a struggle with officers while the passenger was held without incident.
Officers later found a satellite phone, GPS, knife and cellphone on the panga. According to the complaint, Beltran-Higuera said he'd been offered $3,000 to transport a load of gasoline to an awaiting panga boat in the United States. He said he did not know whether the awaiting panga would be carrying drugs or people.
Pangas have been turning up along the Southern California coastline with increased frequency.
In late October, three Mexican nationals were arrested at they navigated a crude vessel filled with 3,222 pounds of marijuana near a Malaga Cove beach in Palos Verdes Estates. In March, a panga loaded with 20 illegal immigrants landed on a beach in front of the NRG power plant in El Segundo. Court records show they paid up to $8,500 each to be brought to Los Angeles.
Authorities and federal immigration officials say the recent uptick can be attributed to two primary factors - tighter security along the United States-Mexico border and increased bravado among smugglers seeking to move migrants and narcotics north.
Those arrested for attempted smuggling face deportation and felony charges that can bring sentences of up to life in prison.
Eggers said the incident early Sunday was the first time in recent memory that an officer has died during an interdiction with a panga.
He said the incident remains under investigation.
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Staff writer Doug Morino contributed to this article.