By Rio Yamat
A failed Republican candidate who authorities said was angry over his defeat and made baseless claims the election last November was “rigged” against him was arrested in connection with a series of drive-by shootings targeting the homes of Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico’s largest city.
Solomon Pena, 39, was arrested Monday evening, just hours after SWAT officers took him into custody and served search warrants at his home, police said.
Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina described Pena as the “mastermind” of what he said appears to be a politically motivated conspiracy leading to shootings at the homes of two county commissioners and two state legislators between early December and early January.
Pena ran unsuccessfully in November against incumbent state Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, the longtime Democrat representing House District 14 in the South Valley. Garcia won by 48 percentage points, or roughly 3,600 votes.
After the election, police said, Pena showed up uninvited at the elected officials' homes with what he claimed were documents proving he had won his race. There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in New Mexico in 2020 or 2022.
The shootings began shortly after those conversations.
“This type of radicalism is a threat to our nation and has made its way to our doorstep right here in Albuquerque, New Mexico," Mayor Tim Keller said. “But I know we are going to push back, and we will not allow this to cross the threshold.”
Four men conspired with Pena, who is accused of paying them cash to carry out at least two of the drive-by shootings in stolen vehicles, while Pena “pulled the trigger” during one of the crimes, Deputy Police Commander Kyle Hartsock said.
Detectives identified Pena as their key suspect using a combination of cellphone and vehicle records, witness interviews and bullet casings collected at the lawmakers’ homes, police said. His arrest came one week after Medina announced they had identified a suspect in the shootings.
A lawyer for Pena who could comment on the allegations wasn’t listed Monday night in jail records.
No one was injured in the shootings, which unfolded amid a rise in threats to members of Congress, school board members, election officials and other government workers around the nation. In Albuquerque, law enforcement has struggled to address back-to-back years of record homicides and persistent gun violence.
The shootings began Dec. 4, when eight rounds were fired at the home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa. Days later, state Rep. Javier Martinez's home was targeted, followed by a Dec. 11 shooting at the home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley. More than a dozen rounds were fired at her home, police said.
The final related shooting, targeting state Sen. Linda Lopez's home, unfolded in the midnight hour of Jan. 3. Police said more than a dozen shots were fired and Lopez said three of the bullets passed through her 10-year-old daughter’s bedroom.
Investigators received a break in the case after technology that can detect the sound of gunfire led an officer to Lopez's neighborhood shortly after the shots were fired.
The officer found bullet casings matching a handgun found later that morning in a Nissan Maxima registered to Pena. Around 1:30 a.m., about an hour after the shooting at Lopez's home, police stopped the Nissan about 4 miles (6 kilometers) from the lawmaker's neighborhood.
The driver, identified Monday night as Jose Trujillo, was arrested on an outstanding warrant, leading to the discovery of more than 800 fentanyl pills and two firearms in the car, police said.
A criminal complaint outlining the exact charges against the former political candidate was expected to be released in the coming days. Additional arrests and charges also were expected, but police declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation.
Detectives also were investigating two additional shootings they initially believed could be related to the Pena case: one in the vicinity of New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez’s former campaign office and another at state Sen. Antonio Maestas’ office. Police on Monday said the shootings do not appear to be connected.
The New Mexico Republican Party condemned Pena in a statement Monday night. “If Pena is found guilty, he must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”