The Oklahoman

Rancher’s murder charge lessened in migrant death

- Anita Snow

PHOENIX – A Mexican man testified Friday about the moment when a fellow migrant was shot and killed on an Arizona ranch as they illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

The man, who was referred to by the initials D.R.R. to protect his identity, said through a Spanish-speaking interprete­r that the shots rang out without warning and that because of this, his group didn’t know where they were coming from.

“I did nothing. I saw Gabriel,” he said, referring to the 48-year-old man who was killed, Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea. “He held his chest and said ‘I’m hit.’ He rolled his eyes and fell down.”

The testimony came during an evidentiar­y hearing in a Nogales, Arizona, courtroom for George Alan Kelly, the 74-year-old rancher accused of killing Cuen-Buitimea.

Kelly is charged with one count of second-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault against two migrants, including the one who testified Friday. His attorney, Brenna Larkin, entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.

Kelly was initially charged with firstdegree murder, but prosecutor­s lowered the charge. They didn’t explain why during the hearing.

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 in Santa Cruz County Justice Court was also intended to determine issues of material fact in the case and allow Kelly’s defense to call witnesses. As of mid-afternoon, only the migrant D.R.R. and a county sheriff ’s detective had testified.

D.R.R. testified that he and CuenBuitim­ea had paid for passage across the border on Jan. 30 from Nogales and were heading to Phoenix. He also said neither of them was carrying a weapon. Cuen-Buitimea was wearing a green camouflage backpack as well as a bag on his belt.

According to D.R.R., they were 3 to 4 meters from the road when they suddenly heard gunfire. It was around the fourth round that Cuen-Buitimea was wounded, but 15 or 16 shots were fired in all, he testified.

“I ran 20 meters when I turned around to see him (Kelly),” D.R.R. said. “I turned around to see if it was government agents coming after us. I was able to jump and I jumped the wall back to Mexico.”

Prosecutor­s allege that Kelly opened fire with an AK-47 rifle on about eight unarmed migrants he encountere­d on his ranch outside Nogales, striking the man who died in the back as he tried to flee. Two of the migrants later told authoritie­s that Kelly also shot at them, but that they weren’t hit and managed to escape over the fence back into Mexico.

Prosecutor­s say Cuen-Buitimea lived just south of the border in Nogales. U.S. court records show that he was convicted of illegally entering the U.S. several times and deported back to Mexico, most recently in 2016. D.R.R. also testified that he has crossed the border illegally multiple times.

Kimberly Hunley, chief deputy county attorney, said her office, 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.”

Larkin has said that Kelly did not shoot Cuen-Buitimea, but he fired warning shots earlier in the day above the heads of smugglers carrying AK-47 rifles and backpacks on his property.

Prosecutor­s allege that Kelly, 74, opened fire with an AK-47 rifle on about eight unarmed migrants he encountere­d Jan. 30.

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