Tension surrounding the passage of Arizona’s tough new law cracking down on illegal immigration contributed to the slaying of an Hispanic man, allegedly shot by a white neighbor, a representative of the dead man’s family said Friday.
Police and the family said the arrested man, 50-year-old Gary Thomas Kelley, allegedly directed racial slurs at 44-year-old Juan Daniel Varela before the May 6 shooting near their homes.
“When you have talk that becomes aggressive, it escalates the violence,” said Carlos Galindo, a Phoenix radio commentator acting as a spokesman for Varela’s relatives at a state Capitol news conference.
Gov. Jan Brewer on April 23 signed a law that requires police to ask a person’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the country illegally. The law takes effect July 29 unless blocked by pending court challenges.
Critics contend the law will lead to racial profiling of Hispanics, a charge denied by Brewer and other supporters of the law.
A probable cause statement filed May 6 said Kelley confronted Varela outside Varela’s home and repeated racial slurs at Varela. Varela then apparently attempted to kick Kelley who then allegedly pulled out a revolver and shot Varela, police said.
A police statement said the two men had gotten into altercations several times in recent years. The family wants Kelley charged with premeditated first-degree murder, not second-degree murder, with a hate crime allegation, Galindo said.
“This family wants justice. They’re asking that violence stop and that Gov. Brewer and other elected officials take responsibility for this hostile atmosphere they have created” by the immigration law and other legislation, Galindo said.
But Phoenix Police Department spokesman, Officer Luis Samudio, said Friday the shooting was not a hate crime, an allegation that under Arizona law could subject a person convicted of a crime to a stiffer sentence.
Robert Shutts, homicide bureau chief for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said the case remained under investigation and that the murder charge could be upgraded to first-degree and a hate-crime allegation added if evidence warrants.
Shutts wouldn’t comment on whether the new immigration law was a factor in the case. But he said authorities weren’t trying smooth over the case or minimize it, as the Varela family has alleged.
“That’s not even close to the truth,” he said. “We are treating this case with … utmost seriousness.” Kelley on Friday remained jailed in lieu of $750,000 bond, facing one count each of second-degree murder and aggravated assault.
He has not yet entered a plea to the charges and a public defender assigned to represent him did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
However, a probable cause statement filed May 6 by police said Kelley “made comments to the effect of it was self-defense because the victim attempted to assault him.”