AZ Rancher Faces New Charges in Death of Migrant, Defense Argues Investigation Mishandled and Law Enforcement Lit Powder Keg

Ranch home of George Alan Kelly.
Ranch home of George Alan Kelly.

Attorneys on Wednesday argued conflicting accounts of how a Mexican national came to be killed on an Arizona borderlands ranch. The state argues that the migrant died at the hands of rancher George Alan Kelly, and that Kelly also fired at other migrants on Jan. 30.

Defense attorney Brenna Larkin, however, argued that Kelly only fired warning shots and that the state arrested Kelly before investigating the circumstances leading to the incident. Further, Larkin said, her client was charged with first degree murder without any forensic, ballistic, fingerprint or other evidence.

Kelly, 73, faces a first-degree murder charge in the death of Gabriel Cuen-Butimea, who lived just south of the border in Nogales, Mexico. U.S. federal court records show Cuen-Butimea was convicted of illegal entry and deported back to Mexico several times, most recently in 2016.

Kelly has been held on a $1 million cash bond since his arrest, and Wednesday’s hearing was to determine if that should remain in place. Larkin argued her client was not a flight risk and that the $1 million cash bond was excessive. She argued for a reduction to $250,000 and to a surety bond rather than cash, 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.

Justice of the Peace Emilio G. Velasquez ordered that Kelly’s bond be changed from a cash to a surety bond, but left the $1 million price tag in place.

Kelly, who has no prior criminal record, was led into the court room in handcuffs and shackles to hear additional charges had been filed against him. Law enforcement claims two witnesses came forward leading authorities 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 outside Nogales, Arizona.

Deputy Santa Cruz County Attorney Kimberly Hunley maintained Wednesday that the rancher shot an "unarmed" man in the back "in an unprovoked attack as he ran for his life" more than 100 yards from Kelly's residence. The government also argues two others who were with the deceased victim as he fled were also shot at but "luckily escaped with their lives."

Kelly’s attorney, however, claims law enforcement mishandled the probe and that witnesses, identified by the court only with initials at this point, came forward after the investigation was “compromised by publicity,” and may be unreliable. Through that alleged mishandling of the investigation, the attorney said, Santa Cruz County law enforcement "lit a match over a very intense political powder keg" and "predictably, there was an explosion."

Defense attorney Larkin also challenged the testimony of the witnesses.

"There’s a very large incentive structure for people to come forward and to have claimed to have been witnesses. People can possibly obtain immigration benefits for doing so, or at least have the expectation of that, and people can succumb to pressure from traffickers who have an interest in blaming this event on Mr. Kelly," Larkin said.

"Testimony is something that is bought and sold by drug traffickers the same way that drugs and people are bought and sold," she added. "It is a valuable commodity, and it is used by these traffickers to obtain what they want. In this case, the benefit they’re getting is security for their smuggling route through Mr. Kelly’s property, and they’re sending a message to anybody else defending his or her own property that if you defend your property against us, you will be arrested and there will be witnesses who come to stand against you."

Velasquez set a probable cause hearing for 9 a.m. MT (11 a.m. ET) Friday (Feb. 24) in Santa Cruz County Justice Court.

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.



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