Arizona rancher faces long-awaited murder trial in border shooting of Mexican man after rejecting plea deal

An Arizona rancher charged with murder in the death of a Mexican national found shot on his border property is scheduled to face trial on Thursday after several delays.

The case of the State of Arizona v. George Alan Kelly is scheduled to begin jury selection at 8:30 a.m. local time on Thursday in Santa Cruz Superior Court, according to court records. The parties most recently had a pre-trial conference on Monday, in which they went over jury instructions.

Kelly, who is in his 70s, is charged with second-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in connection to the Jan. 30, 2023, shooting death of 48-year-old Gabriel Cuen Buitimea, of Nogales, Mexico. Law enforcement found the man, later identified as Buitimea, shot to death on Kelly’s property near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Kelly, who called 911 several times that day for help, made national headlines after being charged with first-degree, premeditated murder and being held on $1 million bond for weeks.

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George Alan Kelly is accused of killing Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea, who lived in Nogales, Mexico. (Mark Henle/The Arizona Republic via AP)

That bond amount was upheld by Judge Emilio Velasquez. Kelly was eventually released, and the most serious charge was downgraded to second-degree murder.

In January, Kelly rejected a plea agreement offered by prosecutors that would have carried a maximum sentence of eight years, FOX 10 Phoenix reported at the time.

The rancher’s defense attorney, Brenna Larkin,detailed in court documents how Kelly allegedly spotted a group of men – armed with AK-47 rifles and dressed in camouflage – moving through the trees around his home and carrying large backpacks. The rancher claimed he told his wife to stay inside and went out to his porch with his rifle.

That’s when the leader of the armed group of men saw Kelly and allegedly “pointed an AK-47 right at him,” Larkin wrote.

The defense attorney argued that Kelly then fired several “warning shots” into the air and witnessed the group of men run toward the desert.

Kelly called the Border Patrol ranch liaison, assigned to assist those living in the borderlands, to report what happened.

Hours later, the rancher went to check on his horses around sunset and called law enforcement again upon finding the man’s body on his property, the defense argued.

Prosecutors have painted a different account of events. The state argued that Kelly recklessly fired an AK-47 rifle toward a group of unarmed migrants who were walking through his nearly 170-acre cattle ranch in the Kino Springs area from about 100 yards away when Buitimea was struck and killed.

George Alan Kelly, 73, is accused of shooting a Mexican man on his property in January 2023. Kelly said he fired warning shots and never fired directly at anyone.  (Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

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Last year, Larkin also told a courtroom that authorities “jumped the gun” in proceeding with the premeditated first-degree murder charge first without conducting a thorough investigation including forensics, ballistics, autopsy results, cell phone forensics, fingerprints and DNA.

In allegedly mishandling the probe, the court-appointed attorney said authorities “lit a match over a very intense political powder keg” and “predictably, there was an explosion.”

Larkin contended that the state’s case relied heavily on testimony from two alleged witnesses who came forward after the investigation was “compromised by publicity.”

“There’s a very large incentive structure for people to come forward and to have claimed to have been witnesses. People can possibly obtain immigration benefits for doing so, or at least have the expectation of that, and people can succumb to pressure from traffickers who have an interest in blaming this event on Mr. Kelly,” Larkin said.

George Alan Kelly, 73, appears for a preliminary hearing on Feb. 22, 2023.  (Santa Cruz County Court )

“Testimony is something that is bought and sold by drug traffickers the same way that drugs and people are bought and sold,” she added. “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.”

U.S. court records show Buitimea was convicted of illegal entry and deported back to Mexico several times, most recently in 2016, the Associated Press previously reported.

Fox News Digital reached out to Larkin and the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office for additional comment on Wednesday.

Jury selection is expected to go through Friday, with opening statements set for Tuesday in the trial that is scheduled to last three weeks.

Danielle Wallace is a reporter for Fox News Digital covering politics, crime, police and more. Story tips can be sent to [email protected] and on Twitter: @danimwallace. 

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