Police Chief Harold Medina speaks at a press conference at the Albuquerque Police Department in Albuquerque, N.M., on Aug 9, 2022.
By REMY TUMIN and MIKE IVES
Authorities in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said earlier this week that a former Republican candidate who lost his bid for a state House seat in November had been arrested in connection with a series of recent shootings at the homes of four Democratic elected officials.
Chief Harold Medina of the Albuquerque Police Department said at a news conference that the former candidate, Solomon Peña, was “the mastermind” behind a conspiracy in which four other men were paid to shoot at the homes of two county commissioners and two state legislators.
Peña, 39, lost the election on Nov. 8 in a landslide to an incumbent Democrat, Miguel P. Garcia. Days later, Peña went on Twitter to express support for former President Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign and to say that he had not conceded his own state House race.
Medina said that a SWAT team took Peña into custody on Monday. Police said they planned to charge him with “several state crimes.” It was unclear if Peña had a lawyer. Carter B. Harrison, an Albuquerque lawyer who represented Peña last year, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night.
Police said in a statement that Peña had paid four men cash and “sent text messages with addresses where he wanted them to shoot at the homes.”
Peña accompanied the men to the house of state Sen. Linda Lopez on Jan. 3 and “attempted to shoot,” but the automatic rifle he was using malfunctioned, police said. Another man shot more than a dozen rounds from a handgun, police said, including into the bedroom of Lopez’s daughter.
Shell casings found at Lopez’s home matched a handgun that was confiscated after a traffic stop just 40 minutes after the shooting, police said. The driver, Jose Trujillo, had an unrelated felony arrest warrant, police said. The car, they said, was registered to Peña.
The recent shootings in New Mexico began Dec. 4, when someone fired eight rounds at the home of Adriann Barboa, a Bernalillo County commissioner, according to Albuquerque police. On Dec. 8, shots were fired at the home of state Rep. Javier Martinez. Three days later, on Dec. 11, a shooting targeted the home of another Bernalillo County commissioner, Debbie O’Malley. Then came the shooting at Lopez’s house in early January.
Authorities had been investigating six shootings that targeted Democratic officials. Police said Monday that they no longer believed that the shootings in which Peña has been implicated were related to reports of shots being fired near the former campaign office of the state’s attorney general this month and at the law office of a state senator in December.
Gilbert Gallegos Jr., a spokesperson for the Albuquerque Police Department, said at the news conference that Peña had visited at least three Bernalillo County commissioners and Lopez, the state senator, at their homes in November after his electoral defeat. Garcia defeated him decisively, winning more than 73% of the vote.
“He had complaints about his election, felt it was rigged,” Gallegos said of Peña. “He approached all of these commissioners and the senator at their home with paperwork claiming there was fraud involved in those elections.”
Gallegos said the lawmakers were “puzzled and surprised” by the accusations, and that one confrontation led to “quite an argument.” The shootings occurred shortly afterward, Gallegos said.
“That kind of suggests why they were targeted, perhaps,” he added.
The Albuquerque Journal reported in July that, if Peña were to win his state House race, he could be blocked from taking office because of a criminal record that included burglary and larceny convictions. The Journal reported that Peña had served nearly seven years in prison after a 2008 conviction for stealing from big box stores.
“I stand with Donald J. Trump,” Peña told the newspaper in a text message, after declining to answer questions about his criminal record. “I don’t want anything to do with you.”
Two lawyers who represented Peña in the 2008 case could not immediately be reached for comment. A spokesperson for the New Mexico Corrections Department did not immediately respond to a message seeking details about Peña’s criminal record.
Months before the November election, Garcia asked a New Mexico court to bar Peña from appearing on the ballot because of the convictions, according to The Albuquerque Journal. The court ruled in Peña’s favor, saying that a state law that bars felons from holding office unless they are pardoned by the governor was unconstitutional.
As for the recent shootings, the police said Monday that their investigation would continue.
Kyle Hartsock, deputy commander of the Police Department’s homicide unit, said that police “have somebody who is involved inside this conspiracy who is talking to police.” That person, he said, helped confirm that Peña was at the Jan. 3 shooting.
Hartsock said that Peña had hired others to carry out at least two of the shootings, and that Peña had texted the addresses of the shootings, in one case just hours before the shooting took place. The continuing investigation would involve “more warrants and interviewing more persons,” Hartsock said.
“We’re not at the end yet,” he added.
Police said in their statement that search warrants were executed Monday “at the home of two of the men who were allegedly paid” by Peña.
Peña’s arrest comes amid a recent increase in threats and attacks against elected officials from both parties, and is yet another illustration of the danger that elected officials in the United States face as violent political speech increasingly crosses the line into in-person confrontation.
Last year, an armed man who had repeatedly showed up outside the Seattle home of Rep. Pramila Jayapal was charged with stalking. A visitor smashed a storm window at Sen. Susan Collins’ home in Bangor, Maine. And an intruder broke into the San Francisco home of Rep. Nancy Pelosi and attacked her husband, Paul Pelosi, with a hammer.
But Peña’s case is different, at least in part, because he had been a political candidate until just weeks before the New Mexico shootings took place.
Mayor Tim Keller of Albuquerque said at the news conference Monday that police had “discovered what we had all feared and what we had suspected.”
Keller, a Democrat, described Peña as a “right-wing, radical election denier” and said that he had done “the worst unimaginable thing you can do when you have a political disagreement, which is turn that to violence. That should never be the case.”