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15 people found on suspected smuggling boat that washed up on Santa Barbara County beach

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - 15 people were detained after a small boat was spotted along the Santa Barbara County coastline Monday morning, initially suspected of being involved in a human and drug smuggling operation out of Mexico.

The vessel is often called a panga boat. It had one engine.

The first call to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office was around 8:30 a.m. with information about the vessel somewhere in the waters around Carpinteria.

Multiple units were deployed to area beaches including Miramar, Hammonds, Butterfly, Santa Barbara, Goleta and in the area of the State Parks west of Ellwood.

That's where the boat was seen again, fully loaded.

In nearshore waters, those onboard jumped out.

Two backpacks were then tossed into the ocean.

Newschannel 3-12 was on the scene when 15 people were detained. Three had been running on the beach, others surrendered immediately. There were both men and women in the group.

15 people were detained in a suspected drug and human smuggling bust along the Santa Barbara County coast Monday morning. (Photo: John Palminteri/KEYT)

The sheriff's office had both uniformed and undercover deputies on scene working with State Parks officers and later with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The U.S. Coast Guard launched a helicopter for aerial surveillance and it was later joined by two other USCG boats.

The drugs retrieved in the water were packed in plastic bags and stuffed into two large backpacks.

At the scene, it was reported to be methamphetamine.

The incident took place on a side road west of Refugio State Beach that is out of the line of sight from the traveling public on U.S. Highway 101.

The people who were detained were held on the side of the road for about an hour where they were given water, food, blankets and medical checks.

The area is very isolated and has steep cliffs. It is often used as a hideaway spot for criminal activities.

The group was transferred into a van and taken to the Santa Barbara Sheriff's main office for further questioning.

The vessel had extra fuel onboard that spilled into the nearshore waters. An environmental assessment was expected to see if a clean-up was necessary.

There was evidence onboard of life jackets and food. On the scene, investigators believed the boat may have been on the water for about three days.

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John Palminteri

John Palminteri is senior reporter for KEYT NewsChannel 3. To learn more about John, click here.

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