By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two Mexican nationals were charged on Monday in the death of a U.S. Coast Guard petty officer who was thrown from his search vessel when it was rammed by a suspected drug-smuggling boat off the California coast.
Jose Meija-Leyva and Manuel Beltran-Higuera were each charged in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles with killing an officer of the United States, U.S. Attorney's spokesman Thom Mrozek said.
Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera were both ordered held without bond during a brief court appearance on Monday afternoon, Mrozek said. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for December 17.
Defense attorneys for Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera could not immediately be reached for comment.
Prosecutors say the two men were aboard a 30-foot (9-metre) fishing boat known as a "panga" in an inlet of California's Santa Cruz Island called Smuggler's Cove when it was approached by a small, inflatable Coast Guard search vessel early on Sunday morning.
According to an affidavit filed by prosecutors, when the Coast Guard boat was about 20 feet away, the panga boat turned and rammed it, throwing Chief Petty Officers Terrell Horne III and Brandon Langdon overboard.
Horne, a 34-year-old, 14-year Coast Guard veteran, was struck in the head by a propeller blade, suffering a traumatic head injury. He was later pronounced dead. Langdon sustained an knee injury.
A Coast Guard cutter intercepted the panga about 20 miles north of the Mexican border, the affidavit said, and took Meija-Leyva and Beltran-Higuera into custody. Both men were suspected of having entered the country illegally.
A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer Seth Johnson, has said that in the past year patrols have seen a surge in drug smuggling activity employing panga-style boats off the Southern California coast.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Eric Walsh)