By RIO YAMAT and SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A failed Republican candidate who authorities said was angry over his defeat in November is facing numerous charges in connection with drive-by shootings targeting the homes of Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico’s largest city.
Solomon Pena, 39, was arrested Monday evening after SWAT officers took him into custody and served search warrants at his home, police said.
Pena, a felon whose criminal past had been a controversial issue during last year’s campaign, repeatedly made baseless claims that the election was “rigged” against him as he posed with “Trump 2024” flags and a “Make America Great Again” hoodie.
“I dissent. I am the MAGA king,” he posted the day after the election. And on Nov. 15, he added: “I never conceded my HD 14 race. Now researching my options.”
He was being held pending an initial court appearance Wednesday on charges including multiple counts of shooting at a home and shooting from a motor vehicle, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, conspiracy and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina described Pena as the “mastermind” of an apparently politically motivated conspiracy leading to shootings at the homes of two county commissioners and two state legislators between early December and early January.
No one was injured, but in one case bullets passed through the bedroom of a state senator’s 10-year-old daughter.
Pena ran unsuccessfully in November against incumbent state Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, the longtime Democrat representing House District 14 in the South Valley. Pena got just 26% of the vote, but refused to concede.
Pena then showed up uninvited at the elected officials’ homes with what he claimed were documents proving he had won his race, police said. There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud, or any irregularity involving enough votes to change a result, in New Mexico in 2020 or 2022.
The shootings began just days after those conversations, according to a criminal complaint.
“This type of radicalism is a threat to our nation and has made its way to our doorstep right here in Albuquerque, New Mexico,” said Mayor Tim Keller, a Democrat. “But I know we are going to push back, and we will not allow this to cross the threshold.”
The New Mexico Republican Party condemned Pena in a statement Monday night. “If Pena is found guilty, he must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Four men conspired with Pena, who is accused of paying them cash to carry out at least two of the drive-by shootings in stolen vehicles, while Pena “pulled the trigger” during one of the crimes, Deputy Police Commander Kyle Hartsock said.
Detectives identified Pena as their key suspect using a combination of cellphone and vehicle records, text messages that included the elected officials’ addresses, witness interviews and bullet casings collected near the lawmakers’ homes. His arrest came one week after Medina announced they had identified a suspect in the shootings.
A lawyer for Pena who could comment on the allegations wasn’t listed Tuesday in court records.
Authorities nationwide are concerned about rising threats to members of Congress, school board members, election officials and other government workers. In Albuquerque, law enforcement also has struggled to address back-to-back years of record homicides and persistent gun violence.
The shootings began Dec. 4, when eight rounds were fired at the home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa. Days later, state Rep. Javier Martinez’s home was targeted, followed by a Dec. 11 shooting at the home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley. More than a dozen rounds were fired at her home, police said.
The final related shooting, targeting state Sen. Linda Lopez’s home, unfolded in the midnight hour of Jan. 3. Police said more than a dozen shots were fired and Lopez said three of the bullets passed through her 10-year-old daughter’s bedroom.
Technology that can detect the sound of gunfire led an officer to Lopez’s neighborhood shortly after the shots were fired.
The officer found bullet casings matching a handgun found later that morning in a Nissan Maxima registered to Pena. Around 1:30 a.m., about an hour after the shooting at Lopez’s home, police stopped the Nissan about 4 miles (6 kilometers) from the lawmaker’s neighborhood.
The driver, identified as Jose Trujillo, was arrested on an outstanding warrant, leading to the discovery of more than 800 fentanyl pills and two firearms in the car.
The criminal complaint details text messages shared between Pena, Trujillo, another man identified as Demetrio Trujillo and two unnamed brothers. One of the messages referenced officials certifying the election in November, saying “They sold us out to the highest bidder.”
Investigators said it appeared the men were using code words; some messages pointed to meetings around Albuquerque. One image shared via text showed Pena and Jose Trujillo in a vehicle together and another showed Jose Trujillo eating at a table with a number of handguns.
The police complaint is based in part on testimony from a confidential witness who said he had “personal and intimate knowledge of the crimes” and was present at most of the shootings.
That witness told authorities that Pena had paid $500 for the men to do a “job” using guns the witness provided. He said one of the men told the shooters to aim above the windows to avoid striking anyone inside, but that wasn’t enough for Pena, who wanted them to shoot lower, and that Pena was there at the Lopez shooting “to ensure better target acquisition.”
The witness said Pena and two of the men jumped into a stolen pickup for the drive-by shooting of the Lopez home, and that while Pena’s gun jammed and did not fire correctly, Jose Trujillo’s handgun did.
Pena’s insistence that the men be more aggressive made the other participants uneasy “since they knew that doing so would likely end in death or injury,” said the witness, who faces criminal charges and has asked for leniency. Authorities said no such promises have been made.
Police said additional arrests and charges are expected but declined to elaborate.
Pena spent nine years behind bars after his arrest in April 2007 for stealing electronics and other goods from several retail stores as part of what authorities described then as a burglary crew. He was released from prison in March 2016, and had his voting rights restored after completing five years probation in April 2021, corrections officials said.
Yamat reported from Las Vegas, Nevada.