Despite red flags, GOP-backed candidate now charged with shootings

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ALBUQUERQUE, NM — The former Republican candidate accused of shootings at the homes of Democrats had routinely called for 2020 election officials to be detained at Guantánamo Bay. He promoted conspiracy theories about solar energy, feminism, and “the demonic theories of the globalist elites.” He had been demoted twice by the United States Navy and served nearly seven years in prison for burglary.

But powerful New Mexico party leaders not only gave the first candidate, Solomon Peña, 39, full approval, but they also opened their checkbooks to fund his race for a state legislative seat in downtown Albuquerque, long held by Democrats. Some knew about his criminal record but said they felt he had turned his life around. Local and state authorities now say they are investigating whether drug money helped fund his campaign.

“He came across to me as a very respectful, thoughtful young man,” said Harvey Yates, an oilman and former chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, who donated $5,000 to Peña’s election efforts. Now Yates admits he may have made a mistake. He said he felt “really bad, very sad” for Peña, “who I think really had potential”.

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Police say that after losing his race in a landslide in November — he received 26% of the vote — and refusing to budge, Peña staged shootings at prominent Democrats, including two who confirmed the election results. The attacks came at a time of growing fear across the country over a trend of political violence, primarily from the right-wing, including the attack on then-Chairman Nancy Pelosi’s husband, a conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and the Mafia attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

In New Mexico, the case also highlights internal strife among Republicans as election deniers like Peña — who was in the crowd for President Donald Trump’s speech in Washington on Jan. 6, according to videos collected by online sleuths — fill the ranks of candidates seeking to elected office. Other Republicans, like Audrey Trujillo, who ran for Secretary of State, embraced conspiracy theories about elections, school shootings and COVID-19 vaccines.

Many election deniers lost in New Mexico, mirroring similar Republican setbacks in other parts of the country. The results helped the state’s Democrats solidify their control over both houses in the state legislature, the governor’s office and the entire congressional delegation, leading to allegations of the Republicans losing power.

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Michael Candelaria, a prominent state Republican who until recently served as party chairman in Valencia County, near Albuquerque, said the Peña case exposed a dilemma in a state where Democrats have steadily expanded their power in recent years: how to appeal do on some of Trump’s most ardent supporters, who refused to accept his 2020 re-election defeat, without alienating other voters who reject the lies and conspiracy theories.

“You don’t take a group of people whose support you want and tell them, ‘You’re a bunch of crazy people,'” Candelaria said. “You’re going to have some extremists that you have to figure out how to keep their support.”

But Candelaria, who has pushed for leadership changes in the state party, said Peña’s arrest showed the risks of promoting such figures. “If we had done a proper vetting, we could have broken this guy apart, but no, we’re not good at selecting candidates,” he said.

It was unclear how many Republican leaders had investigated Peña’s background. Steve Pearce, a former congressman and now chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, did not respond to requests for comment.

Some Republicans are bracing for more revelations about Peña, who was arrested Monday and charged with criminal incitement, attempted aggravated battery, firing into an occupied residence, firing from a moving vehicle and conspiracy. Police called him 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, and said he had personally participated in at least one of the shootings.

As part of their investigation, Albuquerque Police Department detectives said they were also investigating whether Peña used the proceeds of the narcotics trade to fund his campaign and whether campaign laws were being violated. The New Mexico Attorney General’s office will lead the investigation into Peña’s campaign finances, a spokesman for the office said Friday.

The twist in the investigation came after detectives learned through witness interviews that Peña had identified individuals to funnel contributions from an unknown source to his campaign, said Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for the department. Investigators said they are focusing on José Trujillo, who is also accused of the shootings, and Trujillo’s mother, Melanie Griego, donating a total of $9,150 to Peña’s campaign.

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Police arrested Trujillo on January 3, shortly after the shooting at the home of Linda Lopez, a senator, in Albuquerque. In the car Trujillo was driving, which police say belongs to Peña, investigators say they found 893 fentanyl pills and $3,036 in cash, as well as a firearm matching the casings found in Lopez’s home .

Peña appeared in court for the first time on Wednesday and did not enter a plea. Roberta Yurcic, a lawyer representing him, said she was unable to comment on specific aspects of her client’s background, including his military demotions and work history. “The investigation into the allegations against my client is ongoing,” she added. “Mr. Peña has the right to a fair trial.”

Javier Martinez, a Democrat whose home was targeted in the post-election attacks in November, said he had “never experienced anything like it”. Martinez, who took over as New Mexico’s Speaker of the House this month, linked Peña’s extremism to Trump’s election lies.

“I think the previous president really exploited some of those feelings,” Martinez said. “And we’ve seen it happen in a variety of ways, including the uprising in Washington, D.C., including this chain of events right here in our own backyard.”

Peña pretended to be on the mend, led prayer groups at political rallies, and told neighbors he didn’t drink or do drugs. But he made little effort to hide his extreme views. His campaign website denounced “the demonic theories of the globalist elites and their foreign counterparts,” called feminism “demonicism,” and said the 2020 election against Trump was rigged by “enemy combatants” to be “deported in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.” placed. for the rest of their natural lives.”

During his campaign, Peña highlighted his time as a marine hospital corpsman assigned to a marine division in Okinawa, Japan. But promotional data from the U.S. Navy’s public affairs bureau shows that Peña barely served distinctively. He was demoted twice during his four years of service and left the army in 2004 at the lowest possible rank. The Navy was unable to give reasons for Peña’s demotions.

Peña walked on a platform to crack down on crime despite his own criminal past. He served nearly seven years in prison in New Mexico on charges including burglary and robbery after being part of a “smash-and-grab” crew that smashed vehicles into stores, including a Kmart in Albuquerque, then stole items , according to court documents.

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After being released from prison in 2016, Peña tried to sell cars at an Albuquerque dealership, but was fired for less than a month for showing up late, court documents from a lawsuit that Peña filed in 2017 show. had tightened. (The case was dismissed.) Peña also enrolled at the University of New Mexico, earning a degree in political science in 2021, the same year his voting rights were restored after his prison sentence.

Peña appears to have run unopposed for the Republican nomination for the state’s legislative seat. In October, he received an endorsement from the New Mexico chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. Ronnie Lucero, president of both the group’s national organization and the state chapter, said he spoke with Peña at events during the campaign and that the candidate completed a questionnaire asking him about his professional, financial and criminal history before the group approved. .

The group did not see Peña’s criminal record as disqualifying, Lucero said, adding: “At the time we made the endorsement, there was the impression that he had his life in order and he is one of those second chance stories that would turn something good and positive are for the community.

“It was a bad decision that we made and we regret it,” he said. “But we can’t read the future.”

When asked about some of the extremist rhetoric on Peña’s campaign website, Lucero said he had not seen the statements – although they were published before the approval, according to the Internet Archive – and that if he had, they would have made him think .

Some Republican officials defended the apparent lack of vetting before the party establishment backed Peña, including defending him when his opponent tried to have him disqualified from the race because of his criminal record, which could have prevented him from taking office.

“The Republican Party didn’t recruit him,” said Representative Bill Rehm, a Republican state legislator from Albuquerque, adding that he didn’t think the party establishment should be scrutinizing candidates. “He, like anyone else, can apply for any office.”

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