Arizona Rancher Considers Moving After Murder Trial on Border

Allan Stein
By Allan Stein
May 20, 2024US News
Arizona Rancher Considers Moving After Murder Trial on Border
George Alan Kelly, 75, enters the superior court in Nogales, Ariz., on March 22, 2024. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

NOGALES, Ariz.—Observers say it took 75-year-old Arizona rancher George Alan Kelly just 15 months to lose nearly everything he worked for: his life savings, the home that was his paradise, and his good name.

Despite a deadlocked jury resulting in Mr. Kelly’s acquittal on charges of second-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, his life is all but ruined.

“First of all, [Mr. Kelly] lost a lot of money,” Mr. Kelly’s Texas-based lawyer, Kathy Lowthorp, told The Epoch Times.

“He had to get a legal defense. He had to pay for his lawyers. He had to pay for his bond,” estimated at $1 million, Ms. Lowthorp said. “He had to stay on his property with no guns to protect himself with this thing going around him” as a condition of his release.

“Let’s talk [lost] reputation,” the attorney said.

She said Mr. Kelly and Wanda, his wife of 54 years, were “rooted in the community,” having lived on their 170-acre ranch near the U.S.–Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona, for more than a decade.

They are now thinking about moving back to their home state of North Carolina as they no longer feel safe in the community where some people view Mr. Kelly as a “bigot.”

His mistrial aside, Ms. Lowthorp said that some residents still believe Mr. Kelly shot and killed Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea, 48, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, who was trespassing on the Kelly’s property on Jan. 30, 2023.

A jury of five men and three women deliberated for nearly three days before returning on April 22., unable to reach a verdict after the monthlong trial in Santa Cruz County Superior Court.

Judge Thomas Fink declared a mistrial when the jury came back, stuck on a 7–1 vote to acquit.

“Mr. Kelly was so scared he couldn’t get a fair jury,” Ms. Lowthorp said. “I think people underestimated the jury pool—and especially this group. I knew I had a decent group right from the beginning.”

Mr. Kelly chose not to testify in his defense and would not accept the state’s offer to serve four years in a state prison in exchange for a guilty plea. He faced up to 22 years in prison if the jury found him guilty of second-degree murder.

Nogales-based lawyer Brenna Larkin was Mr. Kelly’s court-appointed attorney after county investigators charged him with first-degree murder.

Lacking proof of premeditation, however, the state downgraded the charge to murder in the second degree, and Mr. Kelly hired Ms. Larkin to be his lead defense counsel.

After the judge declared a mistrial, Ms. Larkin told The Epoch Times she was pleased the state chose not to retry the case.

“Mr. Kelly and his wife have been living through a nightmare for over a year, and they can finally rest easy,” Ms. Larkin said. “It was encouraging to hear that the jury only had one holdout for a guilty verdict. The rest of the jurors decided to declare Mr. Kelly not guilty.”

On June 3, the judge will hear legal arguments for dismissing the case, with or without prejudice.

If the judge rules to dismiss with prejudice, the state won’t be allowed to retry the case at a later date.

“True justice in this case really required a ‘not guilty’ verdict because Mr. Kelly is an innocent man,” Ms. Larkin said. “He and his wife are both fine and good people, and Mr. Kelly never shot anybody.”

Ms. Larkin said she thought the prosecution’s case was “conducted poorly.” As a result, it is doubtful that anyone will ever be able to find out who actually killed the victim, she said.

“While that injustice to Gabriel and his family is unfortunate, we are at least pleased to know that the injustice will not be compounded by scapegoating an innocent man,” Ms. Larkin said.

“Mr. Kelly and his wife have been seriously traumatized by their treatment throughout this case, and the defense team hopes that these good people can get their lives back.”

Early in the case, Ronald Martinelli, a forensic criminologist, offered his services free of charge to Mr. Kelly’s defense team. Mr. Martinelli told The Epoch Times of his company’s involvement in similar cases in Texas, but Mr. Kelly’s intrigued him professionally.

Here, he said, was a man facing serious charges with no physical evidence to prove he was guilty. Investigators never found a bullet, and ballistics experts never determined the exact type of weapon or ammunition that caused the victim’s fatal wound.

“There wasn’t a single person that could conclusively testify that Gabriel Buitimea was just merely a migrant seeking the American Dream,” said Mr. Martinelli, who questioned why such a person would need to carry an encrypted two-way handheld radio when investigators recovered his body lying face down in the dirt 116 yards away from the Kelly’s ranch house.

NTD Photo
Shooting victim Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea dressed in tan clothing and carrying binoculars and a two-way handheld radio in a court evidence photo in Nogales, Ariz., on March 27, 2024. (Court photo)

In a photo on the victim’s cellphone, the victim is seen with a pair of 10-by-50 field binoculars and two-way radio, while wearing tactical boots and field clothing.

“Is that the kind of equipment and attire that a guy who’s looking at a roofing job seeking the American Dream would wear—is that the way you dress as a roofer?” Mr. Martinelli asked.

Mr. Martinelli said the case appeared “politically motivated” during an election year for the county sheriff, David Hathaway, and county attorney, George Silva. Michael Jette, the attorney the county hired to assist in the defendant’s prosecution, is currently seeking office as Pima County attorney.

“Right off the bat, confirmation bias with an extreme lack of experience on the part of the sheriff’s office, the investigating office, and the county prosecutors,” Mr. Martinelli told The Epoch Times.

“This is all that they had at the time they arrested Mr. Kelly: They got the prior notice of shots fired and that he fired shots. They got the dead body, and the body appeared to be the victim of a gunshot. That’s it,” Mr. Martinelli said.

“They had no [credible] witnesses, no ballistics, no ballistic evidence other than cartridges on the ground, and they didn’t even have the cartridges on the ground—they didn’t even find them that night.”

Though investigators searched the Kelly’s property on Jan. 30, 2023, they were unable to locate evidence of the five armed men Mr. Kelly claimed to have seen before he fired warning shots in the air in their direction. County detectives recovered the victim’s body several hours after Mr. Kelly phoned Border Patrol to report his gruesome discovery while checking on his horse.

Mr. Martinelli said he believes the investigation contaminated the crime scene by turning the victim’s body face up to determine if he was still alive.

Investigators found the victim’s camouflage backpack partly unzipped and containing food, as was a fanny pack they saw near the victim.

Mr. Martinelli said forensic investigators never tested the backpack for the presence of drug residue, even though the victim had evidence of metabolized cannabis in his system during the autopsy.

NTD Photo
Defense lawyers in the George Alan Kelly murder trial receive a tour of the Kelly ranch in Nogales, Ariz., on April 11, 2024. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

The exact time of the victim’s death remains unknown.

County detectives recovered 1,540 Mexican pesos (about $40 U.S. dollars) in Mr. Cuen-Buitimea’s wallet. “Not a single U.S. dollar”—that was suspicious by itself and indicated a robbery, Mr. Martinelli said.

Daniel Ruiz Ramirez (Varela), a Honduran illegal immigrant and convicted drug smuggler, testified during the trial to being the sole eyewitness to the fatal shooting of Mr. Cuen-Buitimea. He told the jury that he and the victim were on their way to Phoenix to work as roofers searching after the “American Dream.”

“Here’s the deal,” Mr. Martinelli said. “The family [of the victim] that reported to the sheriff’s office that they had a witness didn’t know that Daniel Ruiz Ramirez’s actual name was Varela. They didn’t know him. Another person introduced Varela to the Buitimea family. That person’s name is Juan Carlos Rodriguez,” who identified himself as the victim’s uncle.

“Daniel Ruiz Ramirez is a drug smuggler. He lied in court during the preliminary hearing—lied to the detectives, lied to the prosecutor—said his name was Ramirez. We find out his name is Varela. We find out he’s a convicted drug smuggler. We find out he’d been deported about 10 times. He finally admitted to all of that at trial,” Mr. Martinelli said.

“The question that nobody wants to look at is how Mr. Rodriguez reached out to Daniel Ruiz Ramirez and connected [him] with the Buitimea family. How did that all come about?”

“There was another [alleged witness] who was also a convicted drug smuggler. He got scared and went in the weeds. They never got him again,” Mr. Martinelli said.

After reviewing the evidence, Mr. Martinelli said it is his professional opinion that a “rip crew” killed the victim in another location.

Rip crews are criminals who operate on both sides of the U.S.–Mexico border, stealing money, drugs, and property from illegal immigrants and even the cartel.

“We think a rip crew shot him. There was a lot of evidence of a robbery,” Mr. Martinelli said. “I went in and looked at all the crime scene evidence. I took a lot of photographs of the crime scene.”

NTD Photo
Defense lawyer Kathy Lowthorp (R) examines the bloody jacket of homicide victim Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea as Santa Cruz County Detective Jorge Ainza watches in superior court in Nogales, Ariz., on April 11, 2024. Rancher George Alan Kelly is accused of second-degree murder in the case. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Based on the scope and type of prosecution, Mr. Martinelli estimates the state spent more than $1 million to investigate and try Mr. Kelly.

“Look at all he lost. He and his wife lost their entire life savings,” he said. “Mr. Kelly’s not the kind of guy to do prison. That’s a death sentence to him.

“They put him in the general population. Mr. Kelly told me when he was in his cell, prisoners were walking back and forth and saying to him, ‘Dead man walking. Dead man walking.’ What do you think that means? They’re going to shank this guy in jail.”

Mr. Martinelli said the Kellys no longer feel safe on their ranch property near Kino Springs in light of international media coverage. “How can anybody in their mid-70s rebound financially from this travesty?” he said.

The Mexican government, through its consulate office in Nogales, Arizona, wouldn’t confirm reports of a possible wrongful death civil suit against Mr. Kelly.

The Kellys declined an interview with The Epoch Times after the mistrial.

“He’s not doing any more interviews. He’s had enough,” Mr. Martinelli said. “Financially, it’s taken all their dreams, all their plans.”

“They will never get over this, no matter how this ends up.”

Santa Cruz County Attorney George Silva told The Epoch Times that because the case is pending a final hearing in Superior Court, “we will not be issuing any additional statements at this time.” Neither would he discuss the financial cost of prosecuting the case.

In a press release, Mr. Silva stated, “Because of the unique circumstances and challenges surrounding State vs. George Alan Kelly, the Santa Cruz County Attorney’s Office has decided not to seek retrial in this matter.

“However, our office’s decision in this case should not be construed as a position on future cases of this type. Our office is mandated by statute to prosecute criminal acts, and we take the statutory mandate seriously.

“We will review the facts of each case as they are presented to our office, and we will continue to prosecute all criminal acts that occur within our jurisdiction when a factual and legal basis exists for prosecution.”

Ms. Lowthorp said the defendant spent three weeks in solitary confinement in the county lockup before posting surety bond for his personal safety. She doubts whether the state could present stronger evidence even if the judge rules to dismiss the case without prejudice.

“Look at it this way,” Ms. Lowthorp said. “All the evidence—all the people have moved on. The case gets harder and harder to deal with. I don’t think they’ll find anything that could change” the case.

From The Epoch Times

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