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An Arizona rancher is accused of killing a migrant. How will the trial play out?

A murder trial is playing out in Nogales, Arizona. That's a rarity in this border town, which hasn't seen a local murder murder trial in more than two decades.

George Alan Kelly is a 75-year-old rancher who's accused of second degree murder in the death of a Mexican national whose body was found on Kelly's property, just a mile north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Kelly led officials to the body.

Angela Gervasi is covering the trial for the Nogales International and spoke with The Show about the case.

Full interview

ANGELA GERVASI: So George Allen Kelly is a Kino Springs resident, Kino Springs is a remote community just east of Nogales, Arizona, and he has a ranch out there. And on Jan. 30, 2023, he was arrested on a murder charge after leading sheriff's deputies to a body on his ranch, which like I said is in Kino Springs and located about a mile and a half north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The body was later identified as 48-year-old Gabriel Cuen Buitimea, who is a Mexican citizen.

And initially, you know, this case has evolved a lot over the past year. Initially, George Alan Kelly was charged with first degree murder. That charge was later downgraded to second degree murder, which is the charge jurors are hearing about in this ongoing trial, which began Friday.

So county prosecutors are saying, they're alleging, that Kelly opened fire on a group of unarmed, undocumented migrants and that Gabriel Cuen Buitimea was one of them. And the prosecution plans to introduce a key witness in this trial, named Daniel Ramirez, who said he crossed the border earlier that day with the victim, Gabriel Cuen Buitimea, when someone opened fire on him. And in a preliminary hearing last year, this witness, Daniel Ramirez, identified Kelly in the courtroom and said he saw him on Jan. 30.

But Kelly's attorneys are painting a very different picture. They're arguing that Kelly did not shoot the victim. Instead, they're saying that he encountered a group of armed men on his ranch and fired defensive warning shots sort of into the air to scare the group away.

Kelly's lead attorney, Brenna Larkin, notes that Cuen Buitimea's body was found far away from where Kelly fired the shots. And at one point during Friday's opening arguments, Larkin says, point blank quote, Mr. Kelly knows that he did not shoot this person, end quote.

LAUREN GILGER: He had an AK-47 rifle, is that it? So he could have shot very far is what they're saying, right?

GERVASI: The prosecution is saying that, yes, he had an AK-47 and he also had a handgun, but they, yes, the sort of train of events that the prosecution is alleging says that he shot and it hit this man. But Deputy County Attorney Kimberly Hunley is saying he shot these men who were 115 meters away, which she compares to the length of a football field.

GILGER: What do we know about the victim in this case? Other than that he had crossed the border that day, that he was from Mexico.

GERVASI: We know that Gabriel Cuen Buitimea, first of all, is a father. The Mexican consulate has stated that his daughters are following this case very closely. We also know from opening arguments that Gabriel Cuen Buitimea was crossing. He was not armed, according to prosecutors, according to the evidence they've shown us. He was carrying a radio and he was also carrying a camouflage backpack. And so the defense has sort of pointed to these details, saying that Cuen Buitimea might have been a scout or a guide for migrants. But you know, again, that's not entirely clear right now, we're just hearing this back and forth between the prosecution and the defense, which is pretty of course common.

GILGER: So there have been some text messages about migrants from Kelly that have surfaced in this case. There are allegations that this was because they were migrants, right?

GERVASI: Yeah. So in the months leading up, through court documents, there have been all these sort of, you know, disagreements or just developments in the case as the prosecution and defense work through discovery and evidentiary materials. And in that lead up to the trial, some text messages from George Alan Kelly were published in the court documents, so open to the public. And in one text message, for example, on Jan. 13, 2023, he was arrested Jan. 30, but Jan. 13, he texted a relative saying, 33 drug runners this week. He later adds in the text message, AK-47 hot, want to be back up. The relative tells Kelly to be careful, and Kelly replies, careful is not an option. It is either fight or run and I'm too old to run.

So the prosecution during opening arguments actually cited that exact exchange in addressing the eight jurors in this case. But Kelly's defense has come back and said, you know, these text messages, they're not proof that he was ramping himself up to do something. You know, Kelly's lead defense attorney, Brenna Larkin, says when men talked to each other like this one on one or over text message, they, they exaggerate, they go over the top, they tell stories.

So she's sort of telling the jurors not to take those text messages too seriously.

GILGER: Angela, it sounds like the FBI may be involved in this case. What do we know so far?

GERVASI: Yeah. So in the weeks leading up to the trial, it was revealed that an FBI agent was interviewing a friend of George Alan Kelly. asking if Kelly was potentially involved in any quote anti-immigrant groups. And this FBI agent also interviewed the key witness, remember Daniel Ramirez, that man who said he saw Gabriel Cuen Buitimea get shot. So this is kind of, yeah, a very new development. This is pretty rare for Santa Cruz County. We haven't seen even a murder trial in more than two decades. So to even have an FBI agent looking into this case is just rare for the community.

But the defense attempted to preclude any testimony from the FBI agent in the trial. However, just [Monday, March 25], Superior Court Judge Thomas Fink denied that motion. So in other words, if this agent is called to testify, he could very well do so.

GILGER: Yeah. So tell me lastly a little bit about the community reaction here, right? Like this is a border community, a lot of people own property there. And from what I understand, if you own property along the border, it's not uncommon to see people, to see migrants crossing it. Are people divided over this case, are people watching it closely? What's the kind of tone around it there in Nogales?

GERVASI: Yeah, it's always interesting to see which stories garner a lot of community interest. For example, sometimes we'll do a story about immigration and I'll expect it to be our top story for the week, whereas our readers are paying attention to something a little bit more local within the community, like who was hired as the new superintendent or something like that. But I will say this case, which has a lot of national and even international attention, is getting a lot of attention from the community. And I will say that, yeah, people, you know, not just people we interview for stories, but like friends, acquaintances do encounter folks crossing their property, especially people who live really close to the border.

But one rancher we spoke to who has property east of Nogales, Tony Sedgwick. We asked him if he had heard of any armed men crossing his ranch, because that's what Kelly's attorneys are saying, that there were armed men on Kelly's ranch. And Mr. Sedgwick said he hadn't heard of that in about 15 years, give or take on his own property. As the trial continues, it's set to wrap up on April 19. You know, we're going to see do the jurors believe the defenses allegations that this was a group of armed men and that Cuen Buitimea was shot by someone else, or are they going to go with the prosecution's allegations that Kelly opened fire on a group of a undocumented migrants? I guess it's really up for these eight jurors to decide.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.