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Trial starts for Arizona border rancher charged with killing migrant on his property | FOX 4 Kansas City WDAF-TV

Anita Snow, The Associated Press

3 months ago

Defendant George Alan Kelly listens to prosecutors during opening statements in his trial, Friday, March 22, 2024, in Santa Cruz County Superior Court in Nogales, Arizona. Kelly, a rancher, is charged with second-degree murder for allegedly killing a man he met on his land near Mexico. (Angela Gervasi/Nogales International via The Associated Press, Pool)

PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona rancher went on trial Friday for shooting and killing a migrant on his property near Mexico, with his lawyer arguing his innocence amid a heated national debate over border security ahead of this year's presidential election.

George Alan Kelly, 75, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of a man he encountered on his property outside Nogales, Arizona. The jury trial in Santa Cruz County Superior Court is expected to last up to a month, until around April 19, with hearings taking place four days a week with Mondays off.

Kelly had previously rejected a plea deal that would have reduced his sentence to a single count of manslaughter if he pleaded guilty. His case has garnered sympathy from some on the political right, and there have been several efforts to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense, including several on the GoFundMe platform that were quickly shut down due to the charges against him.

He was arrested and charged last year with the Jan. 30, 2023, shooting death of 48-year-old Gabriel Kuyen Buitimea of ​​Nogales, Mexico, just south of the border.

Authorities said Kelly opened fire on a group of unarmed migrants, including Quyen Buitimea, as they walked across his 170-acre (69-hectare) ranch in the Kino Springs area.

Kelly's lawyer, Brenna Larkin, said the investigation that led to her client's arrest and subsequent indictment was biased and incomplete, and that investigators intimidated Kelly, did not listen to him and changed his words.

Larkin claims Kelly fired his gun over the migrants because he feared for the safety of himself, his wife and their property. Larkin testified Friday that the groups of migrants passing through Kelly's property had become more threatening over the years, including drug and human traffickers, and he had become increasingly armed for protection.

Larkin said Kelly was preparing a late lunch in his kitchen on the day of the shooting when he noticed five men carrying large backpacks and rifles crossing his ranch and then heard a single gunshot.

“He knows there's something going on outside, something violent, something dangerous,” she said. “There are armed criminals on his property. There could be more shots fired, they could be fired at him.”

Prosecutors say Kelly recklessly fired an AK-47 rifle at the migrants about 100 yards (90 meters) away. Kelly also had a handgun.

“I ask that you think of Gabriel Kueng Buitimere as a human being, not the animal that George Kelly described him as,” Santa Cruz County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Kim Hanley told jurors on Friday.

Kelly is charged with aggravated assault on the same day against another member of a group of about eight people, including Daniel Ramirez, a Honduran who lives in Mexico and is scheduled to testify at the trial. Prosecutors said Ramirez had entered the United States that day seeking work, witnessed Kuyen Buitimea being shot, told them he had been shot and then died in front of them.

Hanley said the group dispersed immediately after seeing Border Patrol agents and was on its way back to the border to return to Mexico when the shooting occurred.

The other migrants were not injured and were able to escape back into Mexico.

According to court records, Kueng Buitimea has entered the United States illegally several times and been convicted and deported, most recently in 2016.

The case is being closely monitored by the Mexican Consulate in Nogales, Arizona, which is in contact with the victim's family.

The shooting sparked strong political feelings over border security issues less than six months after a prison warden and his brother were arrested in a West Texas shooting that killed one migrant and injured another. Twin brothers Michael Shepard and Mark Shepard, both 60, were charged with manslaughter in the September 2022 shooting in El Paso County.

The brothers stopped their truck near a town about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the border and opened fire on a group of migrants drinking water along the road, killing one male migrant and wounding a female migrant with a gunshot wound to the abdomen, authorities said.

Florida news outlets reported last fall that the brothers were out on bail and living in the state.

Border security has become a key issue in this year's presidential election, with Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic President Joe Biden scheduled to visit the Texas-Mexico border in late February.

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