Trial of Arizona Rancher Accused of Killing Illegal Immigrant on His Property Set to Begin

Jen Krausz
By Jen Krausz
March 21, 2024US News
Trial of Arizona Rancher Accused of Killing Illegal Immigrant on His Property Set to Begin
George Alan Kelly enters court for his preliminary hearing in Nogales Justice Court in Nogales, Ariz., on Feb. 22, 2023. (Mark Henle/Pool/The Arizona Republic via AP)

The trial of an Arizona rancher accused of murdering a Mexican national on his property near the U.S.-Mexico border in January 2023 will get underway with jury selection on Thursday after numerous delays.

George Alan Kelly, 75, was arrested after the body of Gabriel Cuen-Buitmea, 48, was found on his property. He was initially charged with first-degree murder and held on $1 million bond for several weeks. The charges were later reduced to second-degree murder, and he was released.

After multiple delays related to witness testimony, Mr. Kelly rejected a plea deal in January that would have given him just over eight years in prison.

Mr. Kelly maintains that he did not shoot Mr. Cuen-Buitmea but only shot warning shots at a group of illegal immigrants walking on the property that included Mr. Cuen-Buitmea.

He called the Border Patrol ranch liaison to report the men’s presence on his property and how he had run them off.

Hours later, Mr. Kelly said he was checking on his horses when he found Mr. Cuen-Buitmea’s body and called law enforcement again.

Prosecutors say Mr. Kelly fired his AK-47 recklessly toward the group of men and hit Mr. Cuen-Buitmea, killing him. A witness is set to testify that he saw Mr. Kelly’s shot hit Mr. Cuen-Buitmea. Prosecutors may also call Mr. Kelly’s wife as a witness since she saw the men on their property and was sent into the house by her husband before the shots were fired.

A previous ruling said that since Wanda Kelly made voluntary statements to police during the investigation, she forfeited marital privilege in the case and could be called to testify.

When asked about her husband’s actions and informed that a dead body had been found on the property, Ms. Kelly allegedly said to police, “Well, if you knew the things that been goin’ on out there, you would have … you wouldn’t be waitin’ around.”

Defense Attorney Brenna Larkin argued that one of the men pointed an AK-47 straight at Mr. Kelly before he fired the warning shots.

She also said that the drug cartels active on the border often “buy” testimony to get what they want.

“Testimony is something that is bought and sold by drug traffickers the same way that drugs and people are bought and sold,” she argued. “It is a valuable commodity, and it is used by these traffickers to obtain what they want. In this case, the benefit they’re getting is security for their smuggling route through Mr. Kelly’s property, and they’re sending a message to anybody else defending his or her own property that if you defend your property against us, you will be arrested and there will be witnesses who come to stand against you.”

The charges were nearly dropped in August due to the witness’s reluctance to testify, but that was resolved so the case could proceed.

There is no physical evidence that proves Mr. Kelly shot Mr. Buitmea; no bullet was found at the scene or in Mr. Cuen-Buitmea’s body.

Mr. Buitmea had a history of illegally crossing the border. U.S. court records show he was convicted of illegal entry and deported several times back to Mexico, with the last one being in 2016.

Text messages allegedly from Mr. Kelly saying he had shot 27 other migrants dead and buried them on his property were ruled inadmissible by a lower court, but a recent appeals court ruling overturned that decision and will admit them as part of the case.

The trial is expected to last three weeks.

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