Hispanic Neighbors of Suspect in White-on-Brown Homicide Say He's "Not a Racist" (w/Update)

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UPDATE, 9:44 PM: Received the statement below from the Phoenix PD shortly after posting this item. Suspect's name is Gary Kelley. Victim's name is Juan Varela. See bottom of post for more.***

Police are saying that a 50 year-old white male shot his 44 year-old Hispanic neighbor in South Phoenix in what authorities have characterized as a "neighborhood dispute."

The neighborhood? Near the cross streets of Alta Vista Road and Montezuma Street. The nature of the dispute? Unknown at this time, but Phoenix PD public information officer Tommy Thompson said that the white male did use racial slurs, according to witnesses, before taking out a handgun and shooting the victim, who died later at an area hospital.

Thompson was not releasing the names of the suspect or the victim at the time I spoke with him at the scene, but several neighbors new them by their first names -- "Gary" and "Juan." They had apparently lived almost next door to each other for at least a decade. The crime scene was on the sidewalk nearby the homes of both men.

"They were acquaintances, who had been familiar with each other," Thompson told me. "What occurred today is, for whatever reason, the suspect approached the victim and they had an argument. During the course of that argument, the suspect through out racial slurs. He pulled out a handgun and shot the victim, and the victim died of his injuries."

The shooting happened around 1:13 PM, according to Thompson, who added that the suspect was drinking beer when he was arrested. Thompson was reluctant to label the incident a "bias crime," though he said one of the Phoenix PD's bias crime personnel was looking into the incident along with homicide investigators.

Interestingly, that block of South Phoenix is populated with a mix of Hispanics, African-Americans and whites, many of whom have owned their houses for many years, say the residents. Also, most of the people I spoke with -- who happened to be Hispanic -- were quick to say that the suspect was a "good guy" who never displayed any racial animus toward them.

"Make sure you say he wasn't a racist," said a heavily tattooed Hispanic man named Jason, who said he'd had beers with Gary on more than one occasion.

"It upsets me very much that they're trying to make this about that law," said Magda Rodriguez, whose mother is next-door neighbors with the suspect. "We know him. Never once has he been racial towards my family."

Indeed, some news reports have suggested that the shooting had something to do with Arizona's post-SB 1070 atmosphere. But the Hispanic residents I spoke with seemed to like the suspect, and think that he may have "snapped" for some reason.

Rodriguez, for instance, said that "Gary," as she called him, was a frequent visitor to neighborhood parties. Another lady, who lived a door down from the suspect said he was a "good neighbor" who would watch other neighbors' homes when they were away.

Everyone in the neighborhood seemed shocked by the killing. They said there was no racial tension, even though some admitted that their neighborhood was not the safest. Many of the homes on the block sported iron bars on the window.

One neighbor said the suspect even rented out part of his house to a Hispanic person. Others said the suspect lived alone, and had taken over the residence about ten years ago after the death of his grandparents, who owned it. They said they believed he worked as a handyman and landscaper.

Some of the residents, who did not want their names used, described the victim as "loud" and sometimes obnoxious. But at least one resident said the victim was a "good neighbor" too.

We'll no doubt learn more, as this shakes out. But at least initially, it doesn't appear to be the sort of SB 1070-related violence that many have been fearing.

"The temptation is to say this is a racially motivated deal," said Thompson. "But this guy committed the ultimate slur when he shot and killed this man. That doesn't justify anything. Just trying to put things in perspective."

***Statement from Phoenix PD: 

Shortly after 1:00 p.m. May 6, 2010, Phoenix Police Officers were called to the scene of a shooting at 6400 S. Montezuma. They found Juan Varela who had been shot. He was transported to a local hospital where he died.

Gary Thomas Kelley has lived two houses from the victim for a number of years.  The two know each other but they have gotten into altercations during the past several years. Today, Kelley and Varela got into an altercation on the sidewalk in front of a nearby house.  During the altercation, Kelley used racial slurs towards Juan Varela.  As the altercation was occurring, Juan's brother Antonio Varela walked over to his brother and Kelley. Antonio exchanged words with Kelley. At that time, Juan either kicked or attempted to kick Kelley. Kelley pulled a gun and pointed it at Juan and Antonio. Kelley then shot Juan Varela who fell on the sidewalk. Kelley then walked back to his house and went inside.

Officers who responded to the scene went to Kelley's house where he was arrested when he came outside. Kelley was drinking when he was arrested and appeared to be intoxicated. He was not armed when he was arrested, but a search warrant was served on his house and the gun believed to be used in the homicide was found inside.

At this time, Gary Thomas Kelley is being booked into the Maricopa County Jail and is being charged with one count of Murder and two counts of Aggravated Assault.

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