Arizona border rancher returns to court in migrant killing

PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona rancher accused of killing a Mexican man on his land near the U.S.-Mexico border while allegedly firing an AK-47 rifle at a group of unarmed migrants is due back in court Friday in a case that has sparked strong political feelings in the debate over border security.

The morning appearance by George Alan Kelly in Santa Cruz County Justice Court in Nogales, Arizona, is an evidentiary hearing intended to determine issues of material fact in the case and allow Kelly’s defense to call witnesses.

Prosecutors allege Kelly, 74, opened fire with an AK-47 rifle on about eight unarmed migrants he encountered Jan. 30 on his ranch outside Nogales, striking the man who died in the back as he tried to flee. Two migrants in the group later told authorities that Kelly shot at them as well but they were not hit and escaped over a fence back into Mexico.

Prosecutors say the 48-year-old man who was killed lived just south of the border in Nogales, Mexico. The man is referenced in court documents only by his initials but has been identified by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, which on Thursday corrected the spelling of his name to Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea. U.S. court records show Cuen-Buitimea was convicted of illegal entry and deported back to Mexico several times, most recently in 2016.

Kelly also faces two counts of aggravated assault against the two migrants who came forward and said they would testify. Prosecutors have said even though the men were not hit, one said they “felt like they were being hunted.”

Kimberly Hunley, chief deputy county attorney, says her office, the court and the sheriff’s department “have all received disturbing communications, some threatening in nature, that seem to indicate an ongoing threat to the safety of the victims.”

In arguing against a reduction in Kelly’s $1 million cash bond, Hunley said earlier this week that the rancher’s comments conflicted with what witnesses from the group told law enforcement and his story has significantly changed over time.

Kelly’s attorney, Brenna Larkin, has said Kelly did not shoot and kill the man but Kelly acknowledges that earlier in the day he fired warning shots above the heads of smugglers carrying AK-47 rifles and backpacks 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 allowed Kelly to put up his ranch and home rather than come up with cash. Bond was posted later that day.

The shooting has stirred up emotions as the national debate over border security heats up with an eye toward the 2024 presidential election.

Less than six months ago, 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 stopped their truck near a town about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the border and opened fire on a group of migrants getting water. A male migrant died and a female suffered a gunshot wound to the stomach.

GoFundMe campaigns to pay for Kelly’s defense have been shut down and the money was returned to donors because of the seriousness of the charges, according to the platform. But GiveSendGo, which describes itself as a Christian fundraising platform, carries several campaigns collecting defense funds, including one that has gathered more than $300,000.

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.”

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