The Maricopa County Attorney's Office has confirmed that prosecutors will seek a hate crime enhancement against Gary Kelley in the May 6 shooting death of Juan Varela in a South Phoenix neighborhood.
Kelley, an Anglo, is currently charged with second degree murder in the slaying of his Hispanic neighbor. According to the Phoenix Police Department's report on the incident, Kelley, 50, allegedly told the 44-year-old Varela, "You fucking wetback! Go back to Mexico!" before fatally shooting him in the chin with a .38 revolver.
MCAO spokesperson Jaime Brennan stated that County Attorney Rick Romley "has filed the hate crime aggravating circumstance allegation" in the killing. Brennan added that the sentencing enhancement "allows prosecutors to argue for the maximum sentence, which would be 22 years in this case."
Varela's family was angered that Phoenix police did not refer to the killing as a bias crime from jump. Initially, the Phoenix PD played down the possibility that the Varela murder was a hate crime, characterizing it more as the result of a dispute between neighbors.
Yet, there were some complicating factors. The Varela family and Kelley knew each other, and Kelley's other Latino neighbors actually described him to me as a "good guy" when I visited the block Kelley and Varela lived on shortly after the shooting.
However, the Phoenix PD's report described a drunken and disturbed Kelley, who morosely told one officer after his arrest that, "I love all people; white, black, or Hispanic and I am not racist in any way."
The Varela family has stated previously that they believe that Arizona's post-SB 1070 climate was a factor in the murder.
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Phoenix radio host Carlos Galindo, who has been acting as a spokesman for the family, told me today that the family is heartened by the hate crime enhancement, though they would like to see Kelley's charges bumped up to first-degree murder.
"We had to struggle to make sure the investigation took the right direction," said Galindo. "We met with Rick Romley and [Phoenix Mayor] Phil Gordon, and they were very supportive. Hopefully, this will send a message nationally, and deter those that might attack people because of their ethnicity."
Galindo said the family would be holding a press conference shortly to address the change in prosecutors' stance toward the crime and the alleged perpetrator.