San Luis Obispo County sheriffs deputies Jonathan Howard and Roger Degnan did not expect to see flashlight beams skittering across an oceanfront meadow at 4:15 a.m. about 4 miles north of Piedras Blancas Light Station.
But thats what they saw early Tuesday, followed immediately by the discovery of cut wires in a fence that separates a half-mile-wide stretch of state park land from Highway 1.
Soon thereafter, the deputies chased five men through the brush, catching one, and found a small, sturdy smuggling boat called a panga at the shore. A second suspect was captured later about a mile away, near the highway.
No marijuana or other drugs were found, according to sheriffs spokesman Tony Cipolla. However, Cmdr. Ron Hastie said the incident appeared to be consistent with a clandestine, narcotics-smuggling operation.
Also found were 34 containers of fuel floating in the water nearby. Some fuel containers were full, others partially full, and some were empty. A small amount of fuel escaped into the ocean, according to officials at the scene.
By noon, a Coast Guard cutter was towing the panga to Morro Bay. That agency also hauled away the fuel containers.
Later in the day, Luis Osiel Gonzalez, 23, was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a peace officer. Juan Pedro Gonzalez, also 23, was arrested on suspicion of giving false identification to a peace officer, and also was placed on immigration hold. No hometown was immediately available for either man.
The incident marked the fourth time in the last six months that a panga boat has come ashore on the rugged coast north of Cambria, Cipolla said.
Use of pangas
Pangas are high-speed, open-top fishing boats used in Central America by fishermen.
The craft have been used increasingly in recent years to transport people and drugs from Mexico to the United States, especially at night. Abandoned craft have also been discovered in neighboring counties and in Southern California.
An abandoned 35-foot panga filled with about 1,800 pounds of marijuana in 100-pound bales was found about two miles north of the lighthouse May 24. At the time, sheriffs officials said it was the first seizure of its kind in San Luis Obispo County.
Law enforcers confiscated another panga and 3,000 pounds of marijuana on Sept. 6 and arrested 20 individuals, who were turned over to federal authorities. On Oct. 19, an empty, abandoned panga was retrieved.
The scenic but remote North Coast shoreline provides landing sites that cant be seen from the highway, spots that allegedly were used by smugglers in other eras, especially during such periods as Prohibition and the mission-building years of the 1800s.
The panga found Tuesday, approximately 28 feet long with a single Yamaha outboard motor, was smaller than the previous two-motor vessels uncovered in this county, Cipolla said.
Sheriff Ian Parkinson said this boat didnt seem to have been carrying narcotics. Officials speculated that the panga may have been a companion vessel to boats that were transporting drugs, or could have been a supply boat taking the fuel to another location for future use.
Parkinson is concerned about the increase in such illicit traffic in this county. He has ordered increased patrolling, especially around Piedras Blancas and other remote coastal spots.
Deputies Degnan and Howard were part of that expanded law-enforcement presence, according to sheriffs Cmdr. Jason Nefores. They did an outstanding job, he said. Weve been on panga patrol for several months, cruising that area at odd times of the night, looking for RVs and other things that dont fit the normal pattern.
Flashlight beams and cut fences definitely fell into that category.
In the wee hours of the morning, the two deputies hiked into the weedy meadow area and saw five men fleeing into head-high brush and gentle hillocks to the south.
The deputies chased them and caught one. During the scuffle that followed, a suspect allegedly flung his elbow into Degnans eye. The wounded deputy apparently didnt require medical treatment.
Three other men apparently escaped, despite a search by Coast Guard helicopter, CHP airplane, deputies, canine units and other law officers.
Among the nearly three dozen others at the scene were sheriffs detectives, the dive team and a narcotics unit, search dogs from the Sheriffs Office and state Fish and Game, state park rangers and Homeland Security investigators.