Charges against an Arizona rancher charged with killing a Mexican migrant on his property last month have been downgraded from first- to second-degree murder.
George Kelly’s lawyer, Brenna Larkin, entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf Friday after prosecutors announced the change.
Kimberly Hunley, chief deputy attorney for Santa Cruz County, asserted that the 74-year-old lifelong farmer opened fire at several unarmed border crossers with an AK-47 rifle and fatally struck Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea, 48, as he tried to flee.
Kelly has countered that he thought was being besieged by armed traffickers in the border town and shot over their heads in self-defense.
Testifying at an evidentiary hearing Friday, a detective told the court that Kelly called authorities to report that he was being fired upon.
He was “frantically telling him he was being shot at,” the witness said of Kelly’s phone exchange with another agent. “He said that he was being shot at and he was shooting back.”
The witness said Kelly called the agent back.
“He said that he wasn’t sure he was being shot at,” the witness said. “He said that he heard what he believed to be shots and he was being shot at. But then he changed. He didn’t know exactly if he was being shot at.”
The detective said Kelly’s uneven recollections eventually triggered his arrest.
Larkin pushed back on the testimony, arguing that the investigator was prematurely convinced Kelly committed a crime and skewed his efforts accordingly.
The detective later interviewed Kelly, and said he gave inconsistent accounts of the shooting, including how many people he has seen on his property, if they were armed and if he aimed directly at them or over their heads.
“Just the totality of circumstances,” he said. “That’s why I decided to arrest.”
Larkin pressed the detective on his interviewing methods.
“You pushed Mr. Kellly in this interview,” she said. “Isn’t that fair to say? In this interview, don’t you directly tell Mr. Kelly ‘you shot him?’ You push Mr. Kelly in this interview.”
The witness denied any bias, asserting that he wanted the farmer to admit the “truth.”
A witness to the killing, a migrant who was traveling with Cuen-Buitimea, later testified that his contingent of eight border crossers was unarmed and that Kelly shot without provocation.
“I saw Gabriel,” he told the court. “He held his chest and he said, ‘I’m hit’, and he fell down and rolled his eyes.”
Larkin has argued that Kelly would not have fired randomly that day and that the area is notorious for violence and drug trafficking.
She has argued that witnesses in the case were being intimated by drug gangs to entrap her client.
Prosecutors have dismissed that theory, countering that Kelly had no reasonable grounds to open fire.
Kelly was released from jail on a $1 million bond — thanks in large part to $400,000 raised by a Christian group after GoFundMe declined to host a fundraising campaign.
“It is a tragedy that a simple farmer, who should be protected by the government has been abandoned and had to defend himself,” the GiveSendGo page states.