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Accused ‘Mastermind’ of New Mexico Political Shootings Left A Chilling Digital Trail

8 minute read

On the surface, Solomon Peña sounded like so many of his fellow Trump fans on Twitter.

The posts from the 39-year-old followed a now-familiar pattern of right-wing social media users. He tweeted about how vaccines didn’t work against Covid-19, engaged with memes that echoed QAnon conspiracies, and repeatedly posted about the “Deep State.” He complained about President Joe Biden’s “misguided energy policies” and angrily tweeted at Democratic lawmakers. He called himself the “MAGA King” and vowed to stand by Donald Trump “until my dying day.” On Dec. 4, he repeatedly tweeted about the election being “rigged” and called a female Republican lawmaker a “prostitute” for being “silent while Donald J. Trump was overthrown.”

But as he tweeted, Peña, who ran for the New Mexico state legislature last year and lost, was also taking disturbing action, authorities say. The same day he railed against the “rigged” election, someone fired eight rounds at the home of Adriann Barboa, a Democratic Bernalillo County commissioner who had voted to certify the midterm election results.

Police say it was the beginning of a spree of politically motivated shootings that Peña allegedly orchestrated. According to authorities, Peña paid four men in cash to target the homes of the two Democratic state lawmakers and two Democratic county commissioners. He was arrested late Monday by Albuquerque police. Although no one was injured, Peña intended to cause “serious injury or cause death to occupants inside their homes,” according to the arrest affidavit. He could not be reached for comment.

The episode is part of a rising tide of political violence targeting institutions ranging from Congress to state legislatures to local school boards, county health care officials, and members of the judiciary. The relentless intimidation, experts say, is causing many officials to leave their positions and deterring others from pursuing public service. And it comes as Americans’ acceptance of violence as a political tool has spiked sharply, fueled by social-media outrage. Peña’s case is one of the starkest representations of this growing trend: a wanna-be legislator motivated by conspiracies who lashed out violently, authorities say, against officials he perceived as his political enemies.

Read More: How the Threat of Political Violence is Transforming America.

Peña left a digital trail that offers a window into his mindset. Yet his posts were not unusual for a right-wing social-media user, blending into an online discourse often punctuated by violent threats. Peña’s case illustrates what U.S. officials and analysts have warned is an increasingly common scenario, with online conspiracies and incendiary rhetoric jumping into real-world violence. The normalization of apocalyptic language and the surge in threats against public officials further obscures which individuals intend to act on what they are posting.

“Us true American Nationalists will prevail, because you will have to kill us to stop us,” Peña tweeted on Dec. 7. The following day, gunfire damaged the home of New Mexico state Rep. Javier Martinez.

Four days later, Peña tweeted, “Once the rigging is stopped, I will be sworn in as the State Rep for district 14.” That same day, more than a dozen shots were fired into the home of then-Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, police say. O’Malley had also voted to certify the midterm results.

In the last of the four attacks authorities are linking to Peña, the men he allegedly paid fired more than a dozen shots at the home of state Sen. Linda Lopez on Jan. 3. Lopez initially thought the gunshots were fireworks, according to court documents. When her 10-year-old daughter told her she “believed a spider woke her up by crawling on her face” and asked why there was sand in her bed, she realized it was sheetrock from the bullets passing through her bedroom. Police, who called Peña the “mastermind” behind the attacks, say he was present and armed during the last attack, but he was unable to fire his gun because it jammed. No one was hurt in the incident. Soon after, police arrested one of his co-conspirators, who was arrested with two guns and 800 pills of suspected fentanyl, eventually leading them to Peña.

Ahead of November’s election, local news had noted Peña’s “unusual and frightening résumé.” Peña had previously spent almost seven years in prison after being convicted in 2008 for a burglary scheme. His campaign website railed against “coastal elites,” “welfare deadbeats,” “illegal aliens,” and “the demonic theories of the Globalist Elites.” It also linked to a 261-page document on alleged voter fraud in New Mexico in the 2020 election, and a manifesto from noted conspiracist and right-wing activist Lyndon LaRouche that declares “our Republic faces the greatest threat to its existence since the Civil War.”

Read More: How QAnon Conspiracy Theorists Are Winning Local Elections.

In a comment on the document, Peña complained that the University of New Mexico was “overran with Marxism [sic].” (A university spokesperson confirmed to TIME that Peña graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2021.) A review of public records shows that he made nearly two-dozen donations to the Lyndon LaRouche PAC in 2022, which highlighted his campaign on their website for championing their policies. Solomon Peña’s name on the LaRouche PAC’s site appears to be registered under the username “USA Nationalist.” The PAC did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

In November, Peña lost his race to incumbent Democrat Miguel Garcia by 48 points. “He had complaints about his election he felt being rigged,” Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for the Albuquerque Police Department, said at a news conference Monday. “He was an election denier—he doesn’t want to accept the results of his election.”

Peña tweeted more than 30 times about “rigged” elections, accusing Democrats of being treasonous. “We will see the day in which I get to volunteer to escort your handcuffed body to Guantanamo Bay Cuba, where you will remain for natural life,” he tweeted at New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, responding to a tweet in which she referenced former President Trump’s false claims of voter fraud. According to the legal complaint, Peña texted one of the men he paid that lawmakers who certified the election “sold us out to the highest bidder” and “were literally laughing at us while they were doing it.”

Peña’s case also shows how powerful and potentially radicalizing election fraud conspiracies continue to be two years after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and two months after midterm elections that went off smoothly with relatively few Republican attacks on the integrity of the vote. A bulletin issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI warned in October that “election-related perceptions of fraud and…reactions to divisive topics will likely drive sporadic [domestic violent extremist] plotting of violence and broader efforts to justify violence in the lead up to and following the 2022 midterm election cycle.”

Read More: How ‘Stop the Steal’ Became ‘Watch the Polls’

Since election conspiracies took off in 2020, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver has had to leave her home for weeks and remain under state police protection after her photo and home address were posted on a website called “Enemies of the People.”

“In New Mexico, the conspiracies about our voting and election systems have gripped a certain portion of the electorate and have caused people to take action,” she testified before the House Homeland Security Committee last July. “But more recently, especially since our June 2022 primary election, my office has experienced pointed threats serious enough to be referred to law enforcement.”

Law enforcement says the investigation is still ongoing, but evidence against Peña includes surveillance video, cell phone and electronic records, firearm evidence and testimony from multiple witnesses. “It’s long overdue that we lower the temperature,” Rep. Martinez, one of the lawmakers who was targeted, said at a news conference on Tuesday. “These are the things that can happen when the rhetoric gets out of hand.”

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com