Opening arguments in trial of Santa Cruz County rancher accused of murdering migrant man

Angela Gervasi
8 Min Read

Santa Cruz County prosecutors and
defense attorneys presented opening arguments in a crowded courtroom
Friday, marking an official start to the jury trial of George Alan Kelly
– a Kino Springs resident charged with second-degree murder of Mexican
citizen Gabriel Cuen Buitimea.

75, was arrested on Jan. 30, 2023 after leading authorities to Cuen
Buitimea’s body on Kelly’s own ranch, about a mile-and-a-half north of
the U.S.-Mexico border.

jurors, along with several alternates, spent hours listening to and
viewing evidence from the prosecution and defense, who presented starkly
different narratives about the events that allegedly unfolded on Jan.

Kelly, armed with an AK-47 semi automatic assault rifle and a
40-caliber handgun, walked out of his house and opened fire on two
unarmed men who were unsuspecting,” alleged Deputy County Attorney
Kimberly Hunley, addressing the jury.

“Those men were 115 feet yards away from Mr. Kelly and his residence,” Hunley added. “That’s the length of a football field.”

of those men, Hunley said, was Cuen Buitimea, who died from a gunshot
wound. Displaying photographs of Cuen Buitimea’s body and citing the
Pima County Medical Examiner, Hunley noted that the bullet had entered
through the back of Cuen Buitimea’s ribs, exiting through his chest.

Another witness, Hunley said, escaped the gunfire and plans to testify in the ongoing trial.

Larkin, Kelly’s lead defense attorney, unfurled a different set of
allegations. Kelly, she asserted, was standing in his home on the
afternoon of Jan. 30, 2023. Looking through his windows, he observed a
group of armed men on his property and heard a “single gunshot,” Larkin
said. Kelly walked outside with a rifle, Larkin asserted, to confront
the group, when one armed man pointed a gun at Kelly.

raises his rifle at an angle, high up, so that he knows that he’s not
going to hit anybody,” Larkin said. “And he fires. He fires until the
threat is gone.”

later, Larkin said, Kelly found Cuen Buitimea’s body in a faraway area
of his ranch. But Cuen Buitimea, Larkin asserted, was not with the group
of men Kelly had encountered – and hadn’t been killed by Kelly’s
gunshots fired earlier in the day.

“Mr. Kelly knows that he did not shoot this person,” Larkin argued.

No bullet connected to Cuen Buitimea’s death has been recovered, both sides noted.

arguments concluded late Friday afternoon. Now, jurors will be tasked
with examining evidence and testimony from various witnesses – likely
including Sheriff’s Office detectives, a migrant who says he saw Cuen
Buitimea die, and Kelly’s own wife.

Kelly’s trial is scheduled to last through April 19.

Texts and phone calls

Friday’s opening arguments offered hints of what jurors will observe throughout the trial.

The prosecution, for instance,
showcased a string of text messages from Kelly. Some messages described
Kino Springs as an area rife with drug trafficking.

drug runners this week … AK-47 hot. Wanna be back up?” Kelly asked a
relative in one text message on Jan. 13, 2023.

“Be careful,” the relative responded.

“Careful is not an option,” Kelly replied. “It is either fight or run and I’m too old to run.”

Larkin, however, described those text messages as mere exaggerations from her client – not proof of intent or motive.

men get together to share their feelings … They don’t typically say,
‘Hey man, I’m really scared on my property.’ … They tell stories. They
exaggerate. They go over the top,” Larkin said.

the prosecution’s opening argument, Hunley also played several phone
calls between Kelly and law enforcement agents, recorded on Jan. 30,

In one call with
a Sheriff’s Office dispatcher, Kelly asks for a deputy to come to his
home, but gives few details over the phone – though Kelly eventually
tells the dispatcher he found a body.

“You know the saying, ‘You have
the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be held
against you in a court of law?’” Kelly asked the dispatcher at one

“I’m not
admitting to anything I’ve done,” Kelly continued during the phone call.
“But all of those things tend to add up and I don’t know what

that argument, Larkin pointed out that Kelly himself had contacted law
enforcement – a Border Patrol ranch liaison – about the body.

the time, “(Kelly had) faith that this can be investigated, law
enforcement will handle this, and everything’s going to be OK,” Larkin

But Larkin
alleged that law enforcement held a continuous bias against Kelly, and
that investigators failed to consider other suspects.

A key witness

opening arguments, the prosecution introduced a key witness in the
trial: Daniel Ramirez, a Honduran migrant who says he saw Cuen Buitimea
die on the afternoon of Jan. 30, 2023.

described Ramirez as a “humble” man, informing the jurors that he’d
worked as a farmhand in Mexico. Ultimately, Hunley said, Ramirez decided
to cross the border with Cuen Buitimea in search of employment.

Jan. 30, 2023, Hunley said, the men crossed in a group, but eventually
scattered and decided to cross back to Mexico after seeing Border Patrol

As Cuen Buitimea and Ramirez
walked south, Hunley said, “a barrage of semi-automatic assault rifle
fire (came in) their direction.”

Ramirez, Hunley said, watched as a bullet struck Cuen Buitimea.

however, painted Ramirez as an inconsistent witness. For instance, she
told jurors, Ramirez had previously and incorrectly asserted that
Kelly’s own horse had been shot during the exchange. And, Larkin said,
Ramirez had stated that the shooting took place near the border wall –
which would mean it hadn’t happened on Kelly’s own property, which sits
more than a mile north of the border wall.

“Nobody from law enforcement ever doubted or questioned (Ramirez)’s story,” Larkin alleged.

the jury, Hunley offered a similar description of Kelly, asserting that
his statements to law enforcement had changed several times throughout
the afternoon and evening of Jan. 30, 2023.

Kelly’s trial is set to resume on Tuesday.

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Angela Gervasi ,
border Vivrr Local | , 2024-03-26 23:06:07
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