75-year-old rancher faces murder charges for firing at illegal immigrants
By John Lyddy
Imagine you are a 75-year-old male rancher on the southern Arizona border town of Kino Springs. On your small but productive 175-acre ranch you raise horses and cattle.
You just came inside for a late lunch with your wife. Just as you sit down at the table, you hear a gunshot.
Looking out the window you see five or six men coming through the tree line wearing cammo, backpacks and guns. You turn to your wife, tell her to hide, and don’t make any noise. You get your semi automatic rifle, call border patrol and report shots fired.
You go out onto your porch. They see you. A man raises his rifle and points it at you. You fire, move forward about ten yards into the yard, and fire eight more rounds over their head. They fire at you as they flee. The blood is coursing through your veins. You go out and inspect your horse to make sure he’s OK. Go to the barn, make sure things are OK there.
Then border patrol arrives. You tell them what just happened. Officers do an inspection around the ranch, confirm the men are gone. Border patrol leaves.
At around 5 pm, you go out to the field to check on your horse. Your dogs see something under a creosote tree. You look where they are looking. You see a body. Going closer, you see a male, face down, dead.
You call the Border Patrol again. They arrive. You tell them what you’ve found. They go to the body and then call the sheriffs department, who arrive, secure the scene, take statements and begin to investigate.
There’s not much to see. It’s late and dark. They look for shell casings, take pictures. Some of the detectives leave. A few hours later the detectives come back, but this time they have a search warrant. They take additional statements, they take a few of your firearms, they take you down to the barracks and the lead detective begins to question you. After several hours he accuses you of shooting the man that turns out to be an illegal alien. You tell him you did not, several times. After a time you return home.
Soon after, detectives pull into your driveway, come to the house with an arrest warrant and tell you that you are under arrest for first degree murder.
That’s what happened to George Kelly of Kino Springs, Arizona on the day and night of January 30, 2023. According to him, several armed, illegal aliens came through his ranch, there was an armed confrontation and they ran off leaving one person dead. After a short investigation, George Kelly was placed under arrest, charged with first degree murder, given $1 million cash bail and sent to the county jail. After a few days it was obvious that he could not stay in the general population because of threats from inmates, so he was placed in solitary confinement with only a half hour to recreate.
Kelly had an arraignment two days later, given a public defender, Brenna Larken, and sent back to prison.
According to Kelly’s attorney, the immediate need was to modify Mr Kelly’s bail. Being land rich and cash poor, he would never make bail without a modification. That did not happen until Wednesday, February 22. Defense attorney Larken stated, in court, that the mere fact that Mr Kelly was charged with first degree murder and given a million dollar cash bail had lit a powder keg of international attention under this case.
Judge Emilio Velasquez held the bail at $1 million but allowed for a surety bond, that allowed for a combination of already donated funds from Give Send Go ($330,000) and Mr and Mrs. Kelly’s land to be put up as security for his bail. He was released on bond that Wednesday afternoon.
Numerous requests for more time to prepare were denied by Judge Velasquez. The probable cause hearing would go forward on Friday, February 24. Other glaring omissions by investigating officers included the excessive charging, no vetting of witness statements, witness and factual inaccuracies and some very clear and substantial benefits to the witnesses and to the Sinaloa Cartel if this case goes forward. All these defense objections and observations were ignored.
Friday’s hearing was met with excessive security. The court was called to order. The prosecution amended charges of second degree murder from first and two aggravated assault charges claiming mental anguish due to being shot at. Security issues were addressed for its Mexican witness, requesting a total blackout including no voice and video. Defense counsel objected and Judge Velasquez decided to allow voice but not video. All gallery members were instructed to turn off all cell phones.
The prosecution called the lead detective. The prosecution walked everyone through the initial response, the short investigation and autopsy results, identification of the victim, Gabriel Butimea was made with the help of a Mexican Voter ID with photo.
Larken established that Border Patrol had identified Kino Springs as a very high crime area, including many Sinaloa Cartel members trafficking drugs and humans and armed with AK47’s. Also, it was established that there are other rival Cartel groups called rippers, attempting to take drugs or money by force, also heavily armed. In other words – a war zone.
The lead detective testified he did not believe Mr.Kelly. But when asked what he did not believe, he could not say. Mr Kelly was asked several times to admit that he shot the victim. Mr Kelly, pushed back several times saying he shot over their heads to scare them off.
The Lead Detective was asked several times how he arrived at First Degree Murder. He said the interview and evidence just wasn’t consistent. He was asked where he saw premeditation or planning to charge first degree murder. The Prosecutor objected but Defense established the fact there was no foundation for the charge, indicating bias. The lead detective was dismissed.
The Mexican witness was called, all phones were turned off. Court video was turned off. Voice only.
The witness wore jeans and a hoodie and a surgical face mask. A one inch slit revealed his eyes which were darting around the room. Several minutes of instruction followed and then he took the stand. He said that he met an individual at work who said he could take him across the boarder, his name was El Chollo. 7 other people paid El Chollo $1,250 each. An additional $1,250 to be paid upon arrival in Phoenix. They would be provided jobs as roofers in Phoenix. They would also be provided a place to live. It was clear that the cartel was providing transport across the border, jobs and housing. Highly organized and integrated.
According to the Mexican witness, the group of 8 crossed where the wall ended, into Kino Springs. A few miles into the desert they started to cross Mr Kelly’s ranch. They came close to the house according to other testimony, searching for water. According to the Mexican witness no one was armed. He was asked who the guide was, the answer was no one. A second witness did however established that Gabriel Butimea was actually coyote, the guide. He was wearing a large backpack and army boots and carried a radio indicating Cartel connections, according to former a Boarder Patrol Chief Rodney Scott.
According to the Mexican witness, shots rang out and Gabriel was hit by one round entering just below the rib cage and exiting the upper chest, killing him instantly. According to Kelly as the group ran, they fired. According to the Mexican witness they just ran and made it back to Mexico 30 minutes later. This witness testified to crossing the border into the US 6 to 7 times. he was charged, convicted and did time for the immigration violations.
Also, the Mexican witness, unwittingly I think, provided the Defense with key structure of the trafficking operation: the middle man El Chollo, Gabriel Butimia the coyote, jobs waiting, and places provided to live. Circumstantially it was Sinaloa Cartel controlled, again according to a Former Boarder Chief Rodney Scott. The witness was excused.
The following witness was a young detective that had conducted a second interview of another alleged member of the group. This witness was in custody on the Mexican side in Nogales, Sonora Mexico charged with attempted smuggling. No followup questions were asked after the interview. No corroboration of his statement was made. This video was submitted hours before the evidentiary hearing. The defense used this Detective to further exemplify the evidence of bias and inaccuracy. The detective was asked why there was no follow up. He did not know.
The detective did say that the witness identified Gabriel Butimea as the guide or coyote contradicting the first Mexican witness. He was asked how long the interview took. He responded 45 minutes. Defense stated it took 6 minutes.
He was asked if he looked into the witnesses’ background. He stated he had not.
He was asked what kind of smuggling he was doing, was it drugs or human smuggling. He said he did not know.
He was asked whether the group got water at Kelly’s ranch. He said he did not ask.
The witness stated he recognized Mr Kelly from the newspaper, again no follow up. The witness stated that Mr. Kelly was a sheriff. The detective was asked if he asked how he knew that. He did not.
The witness stated Mr. Kelly was shooting ten yards from the body. Placing Kelley much closer to the victim than the physical evidence indicated. Physical evidence placed Kelly 120 to 150 yards from the body. When he was asked if follow up questions were asked about distance, the detective said he had not . The witness could not accurately describe what the victim was wearing. The witness stated a horse was killed at the same time as the victim. There was no evidence that a horse had been killed or injured or even present.
Defense asked if the detective had followed up about the horse and he said he had not.
The witness said he had relationship with the Butimea family. The detective was asked if he followed up about the family relationship, he said he had not. The detective was asked many other questions regarding stated facts or location and description of Kelly’s property to place the witness at the scene, and he stated he had not checked.
Prosecution interrupted and Defense stated this line of questioning goes to the extreme bias of the investigation. Final arguments ensued. The Judge declared a recess.
Several members of the gallery observed at recess that Ms. Larkin’s last line of questioning was very impactful. Many speculated that the Judge may have to come back and decide there was too little evidence to bind him over for trial. 30 minutes later the Judge reconvened. He admitted there were many holes in the prosecution’s evidence, …then held Kelly over for trial for second degree murder. He will be arraigned on March 6, at 9 am for second degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault, alleging mental anguish.
The author, a Windham County resident and 2022 candidate for the Legislature, observed the court proceedings firsthand.