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 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, Ariz., made the assertion on Tuesday, the same day the court made public a filing she made saying 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, identified 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.
Suspect used AK-47, victim shot in back: prosecutors
The court, the county attorney’s office and 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.
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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.
Velasquez set another hearing for 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, Ariz. “We have been present at the court appearances and are in touch with the victim’s family, helping however we can.”
2nd deadly incident at southern border in past year
GoFundMe campaigns to pay for Kelly’s legal defence have been shut down and the money was returned to donors, the platform said last week in a statement.
“Consistent with this long-standing policy, any fundraising campaigns for the legal defence of someone charged with murder are removed from our platform,” it said.
GiveSendGo, which describes itself as a Christian fundraising platform, carries at least four campaigns collecting money for Kelly’s legal defence, including one that gathered more than $300,000 as of Wednesday.
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.
The fatal shooting of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz on his land in 2010 sparked a firestorm that helped spur passage of the state’s Senate Bill 1070, the “show me your papers” law, which was 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 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.
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