Prosecutor accuses Arizona border rancher of firing at unarmed group
Feb 22, 2023, 3:00 PM | Updated: 8:23 pm
(Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office)
PHOENIX (AP) — The prosecutor in the case against an Arizona rancher accused of killing a Mexican man on his land near the U.S.-Mexico border alleged during a court hearing Wednesday that the rancher fired that day on a group of about eight unarmed migrants who entered the U.S. illegally.
Kimberly Hunley, chief deputy attorney for Santa Cruz County in the border city of Nogales, Arizona, made the assertion the same day the court made public a filing she made Tuesday asserting that rancher George Alan Kelly began shooting at the group “out of nowhere” on Jan. 30 without issuing a warning or a request to leave.
Kelly, 73, faces a first-degree murder charge in the death of one of the people, identifed by the sheriff’s office as Gabriel Cuen-Butimea, who lived just south of the border in adjacent Nogales, Mexico. U.S. federal court records, which spell his last name slightly differently as Cuen-Buitimea, show he was convicted of illegal entry and deported back to Mexico several times, most recently in 2016.
Two more people from the group later came forward to law enforcement, prompting authorities this week to amend the complaint against Kelly to include two counts of aggravated assault “using a rifle, a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument” in a shooting at his ranch.
Those two were in the line of fire, but were not hit, according to court filings updated on Wednesday. One described watching the man they knew as Gabriel being hit and said they “felt like they were being hunted.”
Both fled back across the border into Mexico but are willing to testify in the case against Kelly, the documents say.
The court, the county attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office “have all received disturbing communications, some threatening in nature, that seem to indicate an ongoing threat to the safety of the victims,” says Hunley’s updated filing.
She says Kelly’s comments conflicted with what witnesses from the group told law enforcement, and that his story significantly changed over time.
“Kelly shot an unarmed man in the back as he was fleeing, in addition to shooting at other individuals, without warning or provocation,” Hunley said in the filing, arguing against a reduction in Kelly’s $1 million cash bond.
She wrote that the group “posed no threat to him or family,” but nevertheless “shot at them repeatedly with an AK-47, striking and killing one of them.”
Kelly’s attorney, Brenna Larkin, has said Kelly did not shoot and kill the man, but Kelly acknowledges that earlier that day he fired warning shots above the heads of smugglers carrying AK-47 rifles and backpacks he encountered on his property.
Justice of the Peace Emilio G. Velasquez on Wednesday ordered that Kelly’s bond be changed from a cash to a surety bond, which would allow Kelly to put up his ranch and home rather than come up with cash and allow him to leave custody while the case plays out.
Velasquez set another hearing for 9 a.m. MT (11 a.m. ET) Friday in Santa Cruz County Justice Court.
“We are following this case very closely,” said Consul General Marcos Moreno Baez of the Mexican consulate in Nogales, Arizona. “We have been present at the court appearances and are in touch with the victim’s family, helping however we can.”
The shooting has sparked strong political feelings less than six months after a prison warden and his brother were arrested in a West Texas shooting that killed one migrant and wounded another. Michael and Mark Sheppard, both 60, were charged with manslaughter in the September shooting in El Paso County.
Authorities allege the twin brothers pulled over their truck near a town about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the border and opened fire on a group of migrants getting water along the road. A male migrant died, and a female suffered a gunshot wound to the stomach.
GoFundMe campaigns to pay for Kelly’s legal defense have been shut down and the money was returned to donors, the platform said last week in a statement.
“GoFundMe’s Terms of Service explicitly prohibit campaigns that raise money to cover the legal defense of anyone formally charged with an alleged violent crime,” it said. “Consistent with this long-standing policy, any fundraising campaigns for the legal defense of someone charged with murder are removed from our platform.”
GiveSendGo, which describes itself as a Christian fundraising platform, carries at least four campaigns collecting money for Kelly’s legal defense, including one that gathered more than $300,000 as of Wednesday.
Kelly apparently drew on his borderlands ranching life in a self-published novel, “Far Beyond the Border Fence,” which is described on Amazon.com as a “contemporary novel which brings the Mexican Border/Drug conflict into the 21st century.”
Authored by a man with the same name, the 57-page novel focuses on a man named George and his wife, Wanda, also the name of Kelly’s real-life wife.
“Several times each week illegal immigrants would cross the VMR ranch,” reads one part. “They were led by armed human smugglers called Coyotes. George and his foreman had to patrol the ranch daily, armed with AK-47′s.”
The fatal shooting of an Arizona rancher on his land in 2010 sparked a firestorm that helped spark passage of the state’s Senate Bill 1070, the “show me your papers” law then described as the nation’s toughest anti-immigrant legislation. It required law enforcement officers to inquire about suspects’ immigration status if they believed they were in the U.S. illegally.
No one was ever arrested in the killing of Robert Krentz on his cattle ranch in remote eastern Arizona, but law enforcement assumed the perpetrator was a migrant because footprints found at the murder scene led to the border.