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A losing Republican candidate in N.M. is charged over shootings at homes of Democrats

Police say that Solomon Peña, left, sent a co-conspirator this image showing himself in a car with José Trujillo, an accused gunman in several drive-by shooting attacks on Democratic officials' homes in Albuquerque.
Albuquerque Police Department
Police say that Solomon Peña, left, sent a co-conspirator this image showing himself in a car with José Trujillo, an accused gunman in several drive-by shooting attacks on Democratic officials' homes in Albuquerque.

Updated January 18, 2023 at 7:00 AM ET

Solomon Peña, who unsuccessfully ran for a state House seat in New Mexico as a Republican last November, was arrested Monday in Albuquerque for allegedly paying four men to shoot at the homes of four elected officials, police said. They say Peña paid $500 — and that he took part in one shooting himself.

The criminal complaint against Peña includes chilling details. In one case, bullets tore through the walls of a 10-year-old girl's bedroom as she slept. Just before that attack, police allege, Peña had urged the gunmen to aim lower when they shot at politicians' houses.

Charges against Peña, whom police call the "mastermind" behind the string of attacks, include conspiracy to commit a felony, shooting at an occupied dwelling, and shooting from a vehicle. He was booked into the Albuquerque Metropolitan Detention Center late Monday.

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina speaks about the arrest of Solomon Peña, seen at left in an image projected onto a screen.
/ Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR
Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina speaks about the arrest of Solomon Peña, seen at left in an image projected onto a screen.

Police accuse Peña of a political vendetta

Peña, 39, allegedly hired the men to target the elected officials, all Democrats, texting the politicians' home addresses to the men before the residences were attacked. In one case, Peña had visited one of the officials one or two days earlier, appearing at her home unannounced to complain that the election was stolen from him.

The evidence against Peña includes confidential witness testimony, cellphone records, bullet casings and surveillance footage, according to Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina. Court documents also show Peña appears to have taken a selfie with one of his accused co-conspirators.

A photo that police say was sent from the phone of Solomon Peña shows José Trujillo eating a hamburger while holding a pistol. Trujillo and others are named in a criminal complaint charging Peña with orchestrating a string of shootings.
/ Albuquerque Police Department
/
Albuquerque Police Department
A photo that police say was sent from the phone of Solomon Peña shows José Trujillo eating a hamburger while holding a pistol. Trujillo and others are named in a criminal complaint charging Peña with orchestrating a string of shootings.

"APD essentially discovered what we had all feared, and what we had suspected, that these shootings were indeed politically motivated, and that has basically been confirmed by this investigation," Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, a Democrat, said.

No injuries were reported from the shootings, but they set local and state politicians on edge, prompting law enforcement to look at ways to ensure elected leaders' safety.

"This type of radicalism is a threat to our nation that has made its way to our doorstep right here in Albuquerque," Keller said.

The violence broke out a month after the election

The first shooting happened on Dec. 4, when eight rounds were fired into the residence of Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa. Four days later, the home of House Speaker Javier Martinez came under attack in the North Valley area. And on Dec. 11, more than a dozen shots were fired into the home of then-Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O'Malley.

According to the Albuquerque Journal, O'Malley and Barboa were two of the four county commissioners who voted unanimously to certify the general election results.

Barboa said she was coming home from Christmas shopping when she saw her home had been hit by gunfire.

"My house had four shots through the front door and windows, where just hours before my grandbaby and I were playing in the living room," she said in a statement. "Processing this attack is heavy, especially knowing that other women of color elected officials have also been targeted."

On Jan. 3, more than a dozen shots were fired at the home of state Sen. Linda Lopez.

Detectives had initially listed two additional shootings as being potentially part of the same pattern, but police now say they have no evidence linking those incidents to the others.

A 'spider' turned out to be a sign of gunfire

On Jan. 3, just before 1 a.m., automatic ShotSpotter sensors reported gunfire near Lopez's home. An officer who responded to the scene recovered shell casings, but saw no signs that bullets had struck anything. The state senator later said she heard loud bangs, which she attributed to fireworks.

But around the same time, Lopez's daughter, 10, came to her mother's bedroom saying "she believed a spider woke her up by crawling on her face," according to the criminal complaint. When Lopez took her daughter back to bed, the girl "asked why it felt like there was sand in the bed."

It wasn't until morning, when Lopez saw bullet holes in her house, that she realized what had happened and called police.

"As it turned out, sheetrock dust was blown onto Linda's daughter's face and bed resulting from firearm projectile(s) passing inside her bedroom overhead," the complaint states.

The last shooting brought a breakthrough

For the final shooting, Peña allegedly came along and pulled the trigger on one of the weapons, said Albuquerque Police Deputy Commander Kyle Hartsock.

According to the criminal complaint, a confidential witness told detectives that Peña apparently took part because he was unhappy the bullets hit high on the homes and the shootings took place late at night.

Pena, the complaint states, "wanted them to aim lower and shoot around 8 p.m. because occupants would more likely not be laying down." The witness adds that the more aggressive approach made the gunmen uneasy "since they knew doing so would more likely end in death or injury."

About 40 minutes after the attack on Lopez's home, a sheriff's deputy pulled over a silver Nissan Maxima for a traffic stop related to the car's tags, and the driver, José Trujillo, was found to have an outstanding felony arrest warrant. When the car was searched, police found 800 pills of suspected fentanyl, a large amount of cash, and two guns in the trunk: an AR-15 style weapon and a Glock 17 with a drum magazine. Tests later confirmed that the Glock had been used in the shooting at Lopez's home.

The Maxima that Trujillo was driving was registered to Peña, according to law enforcement. It was stopped less than five miles from Lopez's home. Describing the attackers' methods, police say the gunmen apparently stole cars to carry out several attacks. A newly stolen red truck was used in the Lopez attack, police say, suggesting that when Trujillo was stopped, the alleged gunmen had already gotten rid of the stolen vehicle.

Police later got a search warrant for the cellphone of Demetrio Trujillo — whose relationship to José Trujillo isn't spelled out in court papers, but who is named as Peña's main co-conspirator. On it, investigators uncovered a trove of messages from Peña, including exact addresses of lawmakers who were targeted.

Peña got 26% of the vote last November

Last year, Peña ran for the District 14 seat of the New Mexico House of Representatives as the Republican nominee, but he lost in the general election to Democratic incumbent Miguel Garcia, who won 73.6% of the vote.

Peña is a supporter of former President Donald Trump, and upon Trump's announcement that he would be running for reelection in 2024, Peña tweeted, "I stand with him. I never conceded my HD 14 race. Now researching my options."

Peña's arrest comes a day before the New Mexico legislative session resumes.

"I hope, personally, too, our legislators can breathe a sigh of relief," Keller said. "They can go back to focusing on the legislative session. I also know that fundamentally, at the end of the day, this was about a right-wing radical, an election denier who was arrested today, and someone who did the worst imaginable thing you can do when you have a political disagreement, which is turn that to violence."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ayana Archie
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.