PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona rancher accused of killing a Mexican man on his land near the U.S.-Mexico border while allegedly firing at a group of unarmed migrants is now facing a lesser murder charge.
The attorney for George Alan Kelly entered a not guilty plea to second-degree murder Friday in Santa Cruz County Justice Court in Nogales, Arizona, during an evidentiary hearing.
Kelly was initially charged with first-degree murder, but prosecutors amended their criminal complaint Thursday. He also still faces two counts of aggravated assault.
Kelly’s attorney, Brenna Larkin, asked for a postponement of the hearing so that she could prepare for the new charge, but Justice of the Peace Emilio G. Velasquez denied her request.
The hearing is also intended to determine issues of material fact in the case and allow Kelly’s defense to call witnesses.
The case has sparked strong political feelings in the debate over border security.
Prosecutors allege that 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 of the migrants later told authorities that Kelly shot at them, as well, but that 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. He is referenced in court documents only by his initials, but the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office says his name was Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea. U.S. court records show that Cuen-Buitimea had been convicted of illegally entering the U.S. several times and deported back to Mexico, 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 that even though the men weren’t hit, one said they “felt like they were being hunted.”
Kimberly Hunley, chief deputy county attorney, said 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 that his story has significantly changed over time.
Larkin, the defense attorney, 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.
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 as collateral rather than come up with the 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 in which one migrant was killed and another was wounded. Michael and Mark Sheppard, both 60, were charged with manslaughter in the September shooting in El Paso County.
Authorities allege that 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.”
___ Associated Press writer Terry Tang contributed to this report.