A failed candidate called himself the ‘Maga king’. Now police say he’s ‘mastermind’ behind shootings targeting political rivals

Solomon Peña had stewed in Donald Trump’s election conspiracies for years. After losing his New Mexico state legislature race last November, he allegedly contracted four gunmen to target the homes of his Democratic rivals, Bevan Hurley writes

Tuesday 17 January 2023 15:02 EST
<p>Solomon Peña was arrested on suspicion of masterminding attacks at the properties of four Democratic lawmakers </p>

Solomon Peña was arrested on suspicion of masterminding attacks at the properties of four Democratic lawmakers

After Solomon Peña lost his election for the New Mexico state legislature in a landslide last November, he vowed he would never concede defeat.

“I am the Maga king,” he wrote in a 9 November Twitter post.

Despite receiving just 26 per cent of the vote for the state’s 14th District, Mr Peña began approaching state and county Democratic lawmakers with evidence-free claims that the election was rigged, according to police.

Social media accounts linked to the diehard Donald Trump supporter and apparent January 6 rally attendee indicate he gained inspiration from election-deniers in the neighbouring state of Arizona, such as the failed GOP candidate for Secretary of State Mark Finchem.

On 15 November, when Mr Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2024, Mr Peña tweeted a picture of himself in a red Maga sweatshirt that appeared to have been signed by the ex-predident.

“I never conceded... Now researching my options,” he wrote.

Those options, according to Alburquerue Police, were to hire four men to carry out shooting attacks at the homes of Democrat lawmakers in New Mexico over a five week period in December and January.

Police said at a press conference on Monday that Mr Peña was present for the last of the shooting incidents, when more than a dozen rounds were fired into the Albuquerque home of state senator Linda Lopez late in the evening 3 January.

Ms Lopez has previously said that three bullets passed through her 10-year-old daughter’s bedroom window.

Sen. Linda Lopez , D-Albuquerque, shows bullet holes in her garage door after her home in Westside, Albuquerque, was shot in January

A handgun that Mr Peña tried to use malfunctioned, and more than a dozen rounds were fired by another shooter from a separate weapon, according to police.

No one was injured in the shootings, but that appears to be a matter of luck rather than design.

Mr Peña, 39, was arrested on Monday 16 January by an Albuquerque Police Department SWAT team on suspicion of masterminding the attacks.

Deputy Commander Kyle Hartsock told a press conference the suspect was identified using a combination of cellphone records, witness interviews and ballistic evidence.

The shooting came after months of warnings from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security that the lies spread about elections being stolen would fuel political violence.

Who is Solomon Peña?

According to his campaign website, Mr Peña was born in California and raised in New Mexico.

He claims to have graduated from Highland High School in Albuquerque in 2001 before joining the US Navy and becoming a Navy Hospital Corpsman assigned to the 3rd Marine Division in Okinawa, Japan.

After leaving the military, Mr Peña spent seven years in prison after being convicted of 19 felonies including burglary, larceny, and receiving stolen property after a “smash and grab scheme” in 2008, according to KOAT.

When he got out of prison, he had a “desire to improve my lot in life”, he told the news outlet.

Solomon Peña in what appears to be a Maga sweatshirt signed by Donald Trump. He vowed he would never accept the results of his election defeat

He said he graduated with a BA in political science from the University of New Mexico in 2021, and then decided to run for office “when the state of the nation declined”, according to KOAT.

His opponent, Miguel Garcia, who had held the seat since 1997, filed a lawsuit in 2022 trying to have him disqualified from the ballot under a state law that bans convicted felons from holding public office.

A judge ruled in September that he could remain on the ballot.

Mr Peña labelled himself as a “traditional religious conservative” during the race.

But his campaign website is riddled with QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories about topics such as “the demonic theories of the Globalist Elites”.

Despite Joe Biden winning the state of New Mexico by 10 points in 2020, Mr Peña stated that he would “seek justice concerning the rigged” election.

“They overthrew DJT. The offenders are not criminal defendants, they are enemy combatants that must be placed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for the remainder of their natural lives.”

Solomon Peña posted this picture of himself to Twitter in November 2022 claiming it was taken at the January 6 riots.

He used the phrase “Latinos para Trump”, or Latinos for Trump, as a defacto campaign slogan.

In posts after the election, he wrote that he had attended the January 6 events in Washington DC, claiming he had later lost his phone. It’s unclear which events in Washington he attended on January 6, 2021.

The shootings

On 5 January, Albuquerque Police Department (APD) Chief Harold Melina announced they were investigating five separate gun attacks on Democratic state and county lawmakers.

The first occurred on 4 December when a suspect fired eight rounds into the home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa in Southeast Albuquerque, police said.

Ms Balboa told KRQE bullets were shot through her front door while she and her family were celebrating Christmas.

“No one deserves threatening and dangerous attacks like this,” she said.

Mr Peña is facing charges over an 8 December shooting at the home of incoming state House Speaker Javier Martinez.

On 11 December, more than a dozen shots were fired at the home of then-Bernalillo Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, who had retired following the recent elections after serving the maximum of two terms.

Solomon Peña being arrested on Monday by a APD SWAT team

Ms O’Malley told KQRE in an email: “To say I am angry about this attack on my home, on my family, is the least of it”

“I remember thinking how grateful I was that my grandchildren were not spending the night and that those bullets did not go through my house.”

State senator Linda Lopez’s home was targeted on 3 January.

“I am asking the public to provide any information they may have that will assist the police in bringing about the arrest of the perpetrators,” she said in a statement at the time.

The arrests

At 3pm on 16 January, a SWAT team arrested Mr Peña and executed search warrants at his apartment and two other addresses, according to Mr Hartsock.

“After the election in November, Solomon Peña reached out and contracted someone for an amount of cash money to commit at least two of these shootings. The addresses of the shootings were communicated over phone,” the deputy commander said.

“Within hours, in one case, the shooting took place at the lawmaker’s home.”

Mr Peña is yet to be formally arraigned on charges.

Several others are in custody, although police say it’s not yet clear if they were aware whose homes they were firing at.

Both Democrat and Republican politicians in the state condemned violent incidents.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said at a press conference that the investigation had confirmed “these shootings were indeed politically motivated”.

“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,” Mr Keller, a Democrat, said.

“We know we don’t always agree with our elected officials, but that should never, ever lead to violence.”

Police said they had ruled out a possible link to a shooting at the campaign office of the newly elected state Attorney General.

After the charges were announced, lawmakers targeted in the attacks expressed their relief.

Javier Martinez, the incoming state speaker, told CNN: “We have seen far too much political violence lately and all of these events are powerful reminders that stirring up fear, heightening tensions, and stoking hatred can have devastating consequences.”

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