Border Enforcement Helicopter Fires Warning Shots at Panga Off SoCal Coast; 3 in Custody

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A file photo shows a crew aboard a U.S. Customs and Border Protection UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. (Credit: James Tourtellotte via U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Flickr)

For the first time on the West Coast, a federal border enforcement helicopter fired warning shots from the air at a boat en route to Catalina Island, bringing an apparent drug smuggling operation to a halt, authorities said Monday.

The shots were fired about 11p.m Saturday from a Blackhawk helicopter operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine using a mounted bolt-action rifle aimed by a crew member, according to a news release from the federal agency.

The crew of a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft on patrol initially saw a panga boat about 24 miles off La Jolla, traveling at a high rate of speed toward Catalina Island. Two interceptor boats and the Blackhawk crew, on patrol near Catalina, responded to a call for help from the Coast Guard C-130.

With backup on the way, the Coast Guard plane remained overhead, spotting large bales being thrown overboard from the panga. When the Blackhawk arrived, the panga refused to yield.

A helicopter crew member fired toward the vessel using a protocol designed to pose “no danger to the boating public,” according to the release.

“After several warning shots were deployed across the bow of the panga, it immediately stopped,” the release stated.

An interceptor boat arrived and three men on the panga were taken into custody, and then turned over to U.S. Border Patrol agents for processing.

Additional aircraft helped searched for the bales, which authorities believed containted marijuana. The boat was seized.

The incident marked the first time on the West Coast that warning shots have been deployed from the air, according to Mitch Pribble, director of air operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in San Diego. “

“You always want a vessel to stop when they are first directed to do so,” Pribble said in the news release. “However, when a suspected criminal chooses to flee, the ability to fire those warning shots gives us another option that can be used to get them to stop before they become a greater danger to law enforcement personnel, innocent civilians on the water, and themselves.”