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‘Innocent’ Arizona rancher files full-throated defense after Mexican national shot dead on property

George Alan Kelley

George Alan Kelly (Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

The Arizona husband, father, and grandfather who was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of a Mexican national on his ranch filed a full-throated defense of his actions in court as part of a bid to modify his pretrial detainment.

Documents filed by the defense late last week in the case of George Alan Kelly say that the Kino Springs property owner was minding his own business and about to eat lunch with his wife on Jan. 30 when he claims to have spotted a “group of men” armed with AK-47s “moving through the trees around his home.”

“As they ate, Mr. Kelly heard a single gunshot. Next, he saw his horse—who is old—running away scared and at full speed,” the legal memo said.

A rancher grabs his gun

Painting a portrait of a shootout in the Old West, the defense identified the rancher as a 75-year-old (other reporting has listed him as 73 or 74 years old, and Arizona court records say he was born January 1949) who grabbed a rifle to protect his and his family’s life and livelihood from men he suspected of trespassing and smuggling.

“They [the group of men] were armed with AK-47 rifles, dressed in khakis and camouflaged clothing, and carrying large backpacks. None of them were known to [Kelly]. He had not given any of them permission to come onto his land. Based on the foregoing, Mr. Kelly was understandably concerned and reasonably feared for his safety, his wife’s safety, and his animals’ safety,” said the motion signed by attorney Brenna Larkin.

The defense said that Kelly called up U.S. Border Patrol for help and then went onto his porch with a rifle in hand to protect his property. He claimed he fired warning shots.

“The leader of the armed group of men saw Mr. Kelly and pointed an AK-47 right at him,” the defense said. “Mr. Kelly, fearing for his life and safety, fired several shots from his rifle, hoping to scare them away from him, his wife, his animals, and his home.”

“As he shot, Mr. Kelly took care to aim well over the heads of the armed group of men. The group then began running into the desert surrounding his home. Once the group had fled, Mr. Kelly walked over to his barn to see if it was safe and secure,” the memo added.

Border Patrol agents arrived on the scene thereafter and spoke with Kelly and his wife about what they witnessed, said the defense. Those agents eventually left the property without making an arrest of any kind (the alleged trespassers were gone and there was not yet any discovery of a body). That changed later in the day.

A body is found

“Later that day, as the sun was going down, Mr. Kelly went to his pastures in order to check on his horse. He was still concerned that his horse might have been injured in the incident,” the defense motion states. “Mr. Kelly took his dogs with him to check on the horse. After locating the horse, Mr. Kelly noticed that his dogs were focused on something on the ground near a mesquite tree. Mr. Kelly approached his dogs, and observed a body lying face down in the grass.”

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The deceased individual was later identified as 48-year-old Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea, a Mexican migrant who had reportedly been deported several times.

“The person did not have any firearms or a backpack on him. The cause of death appeared to be a single gun shot wound, and it appeared that the body was fresh. The person had a radio with him, and he was wearing tactical boots, indicating that he was possibly involved in illegal activity,” the defense claimed, adding that it “remains unknown what kind of bullet caused the wound to the person, what the time of death was, how long the body had been in that location, or where and in what position the person was in prior to receiving the fatal wound.”

The defense said Kelly “cooperated with law enforcement officials and provided an interview,” in which he acknowledged firing warning shots but not directly at anyone.

“He does not believe that any of his warning shots could have possibly hit the person or caused the death,” the defense said. “All of the shooting that Mr. Kelly did on the date of the incident was in self-defense and justified.”

The defense sought a secured bond in a lower amount, arguing that the $1,000,000 bond in the case is “clearly excessive” and only meant to “keep defendant in custody while he fights to maintain his innocence.”

The defense said there is no risk that Kelly won’t appear in court and no risk that he would pose no risk of danger to the community if released under modified conditions. In service of that argument, the defense said that the 75-year-old has no prior criminal history and has never used drugs — “including marijuana.”

The position of the defense

Little has been said by the state so far as to why it believes there was probable cause to charge Kelly with first-degree murder. Nogales International reported, however, that the deceased man appeared to have been unarmed and was shot in the chest and back. The state is expected to shed light on its theory of probable cause at a preliminary hearing currently scheduled for Feb. 22.

While acknowledging that the charged offense is “extremely serious,” the defense said Kelly has been “overcharged” for “justified” actions based on “extremely weak” and lacking evidence.

“The evidence against Mr. Kelly is extremely weak in this case. Law enforcement was not able to locate a body when they searched Mr. Kelly’s property after Mr. Kelly fired shots to warn away the armed men,” the defense said. “Mr. Kelly’s actions are those of an innocent man.”

“While perhaps not everyone would have fired warning shots in Mr. Kelly’s situation, it is important to understand that Mr. Kelly did not ask to be confronted by a group of armed men trespassing on his land near this house,” the memo went on, before stating: “Quite simply, this is a case where an innocent man has wrongfully been accused of a crime.”

Kelly’s lawyer suggested that evidence “points to the conclusion” that the deceased man was a “victim of drug trafficking related activity.”

What’s more, the defense argued that there’s no way Kelly would have called up law enforcement to report the discovery of a body had he killed anyone with premeditation.

“[H]e would have had every incentive to dispose of the body in the vast, isolated desert area surrounding his property,” the defense said. “Mr. Kelly would have had plenty of opportunity to do so. Instead, he chose to alert law enforcement and to assist them in their investigation.” Kelly’s lawyer also said the defendant’s continued detainment would hinder his ability to mount a defense.

“Holding Mr. Kelly in what is essentially solitary confinement until the case is ready for trial amounts to cruel and unusual punishment,” the filing said.

Additional details

Documents said that Kelly, born in North Carolina, formerly worked for the National Park Service and for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before retiring in Montana with his wife and opening a fishing lodge business.

In 1997, the Kelly and his wife first moved to Arizona and began ranching then, said the defense.

Reporting by Nogales International and other news organizations said George Alan Kelly appears to be the very same George Alan Kelly who authored the novel “Far Beyond the Border Fence” and self-published it for sale on Amazon in 2013. The author describes the book as a “contemporary novel which brings the Mexican Border/Drug conflict into the 21st century.”

“The owner of the VMR ranch, located in southern Arizona, on the Border, discovers that two of the ranche’s prize quarter horses are missing and that his southern fence, leading into Mexico, has been cut. What follows will require a gallant effort, not only to retrieve his beloved horses and to rescue members of his family, but also to face an international plan to destroy twin American/Mexican cities,” the book’s description continued. George Kelly’s wife in the novel has the same name as his wife in real life, reports said.

Law&Crime reached out to Kelly’s lawyer for a response about the novel, which reportedly includes tales of “illegal immigrants […] led by armed human smugglers called Coyotes” — armed with AK-47s — threatening the “VMR ranch” (Kelly’s ranch is reportedly called the Vermillion Mountain Ranch).

Read the full defense motion to modify conditions of release here.

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.