Trial starts for Arizona border rancher charged with killing migrant on his property

Santa Cruz County Chief Deputy Attorney Kim Hunley listens as she plays a 911 call for the jury during George Alan Kelly's trial at Santa Cruz County Superior Court Friday, March 22, 2024, in Nogales, Ariz. Rancher Kelly has gone on trial in the fatal shooting of a migrant on his property near Mexico. (Angela Gervasi/Nogales International via AP, Pool)

Santa Cruz County Chief Deputy Attorney Kim Hunley listens as she plays a 911 call for the jury during George Alan Kelly’s trial at Santa Cruz County Superior Court Friday, March 22, 2024, in Nogales, Ariz. Rancher Kelly has gone on trial in the fatal shooting of a migrant on his property near Mexico. (Angela Gervasi/Nogales International via AP, Pool)

PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona rancher went on trial Friday in the fatal shooting of a migrant on his property near Mexico, with his defense attorney maintaining his innocence as the national debate over border security heats up ahead of this year’s presidential election.

George Alan Kelly, 75, has been charged with second-degree murder in the killing of a man he encountered on his property outside Nogales, Arizona. The jury trial in Santa Cruz County Superior Court is expected to last up to a month until around April 19, with proceedings held four days a week with Mondays off.

Kelly had earlier rejected a plea deal that would have reduced the charge to one count of negligent homicide if he pleaded guilty. His case has garnered the sympathy of some on the political right, with several efforts raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense, including several on the GoFundMe platform that were quickly shut down because of the charges against him.

He was arrested and charged last year in the Jan. 30, 2023, fatal shooting of 48-year-old Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea of adjacent Nogales, Mexico, just south of the border.

Kelly shot at a group of unarmed migrants who were walking through his nearly 170-acre (69-hectare) cattle ranch in the Kino Springs area, and Cuen-Buitimea was among them, authorities said.

Kelly’s defense attorney Brenna Larkin said the investigation that led to her client’s arrest and the subsequent charges against him was biased and incomplete, with investigators browbeating, not listening to and changing Kelly’s words.

Larkin has maintained that Kelly shot into the air above the migrants because he feared for his safety and that of his wife and his property. Larkin testified Friday that groups of migrants crossing through Kelly’s property grew more menacing over the years, including drug and human smugglers, prompting him to arm himself constantly for protection.

Larkin said Kelly was preparing a late lunch in his kitchen on the day of the shooting when he noticed five men traversing his ranch with large backpacks and rifles, then heard a single shot fired.

“He knows something is happening outside. Something violent, something dangerous,” she said. “There are armed criminals on his property. Maybe another shot is going to be fired, maybe it’s going to be fired at him.”

Prosecutors have said Kelly recklessly fired an AK-47 rifle toward the migrants, who were about 100 yards (90 meters) away from him. Kelly was also armed with a handgun.

“I want you to consider Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea as a human being, and not as George Kelly described him — an animal,” Santa Cruz County Chief Deputy Attorney Kim Hunley told jurors Friday.

Kelly is also charged with aggravated assault that day against another person in the group of about eight people, including Daniel Ramirez, a Honduran who was living in Mexico and is scheduled to testify during the trial. The prosecutor said Ramirez had gone into the U.S. that day seeking work and watched as Cuen-Buitimea was shot, announced he had been hit, then died in front of him.

Hunley said the group had scattered shortly before after seeing Border Patrol agents and were headed back to the border to return to Mexico when the shooting occurred.

The other migrants weren’t injured and managed to escape back to Mexico.

Cuen-Buitimea also entered the U.S. illegally several times and was convicted and deported, most recently in 2016, court records show.

The case is being watched closely by the Mexican consulate in Nogales, Arizona, which has been in contact with the victim’s family.

The shooting sparked strong political feelings about border security issues 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. Twin brothers Michael and Mark Sheppard, both 60, were charged with manslaughter in the September 2022 shooting in El Paso County.

The 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, authorities said.

Florida news media reported last fall that the brothers were out on bond and living in the state.

Border security is a key issue in this year’s presidential contest, with Republican Donald Trump and Democratic President Joe Biden making dueling visits to the Texas-Mexico border in late February.

AP U.S. News

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