New Mexico candidate charged with shooting, denied bond

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — A political novice who lost his bid for the New Mexico Statehouse and is accused of orchestrating a series of drive-by shootings at the homes of Democratic officials will remain in custody pending trial, after a judge on Monday agreed he is a danger to the community.

Solomon Peña, 39, faces multiple counts including shooting at an apartment and possession of a firearm by a criminal. Detectives identified him as their prime suspect through a combination of cellphone and vehicle records, witness interviews and bullet casings collected from lawmakers’ homes.

No one was hurt in the shootings, but the case has reignited debate over whether lawmakers should make it harder for people charged with violent crimes to post bail as New Mexico struggles with persistent violent crime.

Peña’s defense attorney questioned the credibility of a confidential witness who shared information with authorities, saying some of the testimonies used in a criminal complaint were contradictory. She also argued that her client’s criminal record did not include any violent convictions or firearms crimes and that he has not been in trouble with the law since his release from prison in 2016, barring two trafficking allegations.

Prosecutors outlined Peña’s time in prison, describing him as the “leader” of a group he assembled to shoot at people’s homes and saying ballistics tests showed that a firearm found in the trunk of one registered on Peña cars found has been linked to at least one shooting. Another man was found driving that car and arrested on an unrelated warrant.

Prosecutors asked the court to take Solomon Peña into custody. (NM Second Judicial District Court)

State District Judge David Murphy agreed with the prosecutors, citing the nature and circumstances of the allegations and that elected officials appeared to be the target of at least intimidation or, at worst, harm.

Murphy acknowledged that Peña’s attorney was able to articulate a number of inconsistencies that worried the court, but that “the weight of the evidence against this defendant is strong.”

“I feel that the state has met its burden of proving that there are no release conditions that would adequately protect the safety of others,” he said.

Authorities arrested Peña on January 9 and charged him with paying a father and son and two other unidentified men to shoot at officers’ homes between early December and early January. The shootings followed his unsuccessful Republican bid for a district long considered a Democratic stronghold. He claimed the election had been rigged.

A target in the alleged New Mexico shooting says the suspect “must be held accountable.” (CNN)

Police are also investigating donations to Peña’s campaign, including a donation from one of the men accused of conspiring with him and the man’s mother. Detectives said they learned through interviewing witnesses that Peña allegedly arranged with an unknown source to have that source forward donations to his campaign on behalf of others.

Investigators said they are trying to determine if the money came from drug trafficking.

Court records show that Peña was jailed for several years after she was arrested in 2007 in connection with what authorities described as violent attempted retail store burglary. His voting rights were restored upon completion of the probationary period in 2021.

Defense attorney Roberta Yurcic said the past few years have shown that Peña has changed his life, earning a bachelor’s degree, buying a house and having a job in the roofing business.

Referring to the criminal complaint, she argued that her client, who was arrested at his home, did not possess any firearms and that no DNA or fingerprint evidence had been presented linking him to the guns, which authorities in the US said confiscated in the course of their investigation.

Prosecutors and a police detective confirmed during the hearing that ballistic testing is continuing on the weapons and casings found at the filming locations and on stolen cars believed to have been used in the crimes.

Yurcic also argued that prosecutors produced no text messages or other evidence, other than a confidential witness that her client allegedly asked the other men to shoot the officers’ homes.

Assistant District Attorney Natalie Lyon told the court that Peña should remain in custody.

“With access to a phone, he’s able to contact people, he can persuade other people to engage in very violent and dangerous acts,” she said. “A GPS monitor won’t stop him from accessing a phone, law enforcement can’t stop him from accessing a phone, even house arrest won’t stop him from accessing a phone.”

An assessment that took into account his criminal record and several other factors provided recommendations for the extent of pre-trial surveillance if Peña were to be released, but Murphy agreed with prosecutors to keep him incarcerated.

The risk assessment tool has been the focus of much criticism as the public urged Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to consider changes in Albuquerque’s ongoing fight against persistent violent crime and what many perceive as a “revolving door” in the criminal justice system.

New Mexico Supreme Court Administrators have defended the tool, which is being developed by the Arnold Foundation and deployed in dozens of jurisdictions across the United States