Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal
For much of his adult life it appeared as if Solomon Pena felt the world owed him something – an after-hours shopping spree, a lighter sentence, the cozy shift in the prison kitchen.
In the years that followed his incarceration, it was the wages he didn’t earn, a political debate he couldn’t match. The election he didn’t win.
When Pena didn’t get his way – according to court records, interviews and an ongoing police investigation – he fought back. Time after time.
Leonore Valenzuela, Pena’s grandmother, told the Journal the family hadn’t talked to Pena in 15 or 20 years. She said, “We were very distant, we don’t know very much about Solomon.”
Valenzuela talked about him as a child, and had kept tabs on him through the grapevine. But when it came to trying to answer questions about his job, friends, or a significant other, she acknowledged, with a chuckle, “actually we don’t even know him that well.”
Much of the same can be said for his public persona.
Pena first made a splash when he came onto the political scene in 2022 as a Donald Trump devotee running against incumbent Democratic Rep. Miguel P. Garcia to represent District 14 in the New Mexico House of Representatives.
After the landslide loss, Pena – who attended the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, D.C., and referred to himself as “MAGA king” – publicly decried the election as rigged and took his grievances to the front doors of local politicians.
Police say that when that didn’t work, Pena hired several men to commit a string of drive-by shootings targeting the homes of Bernalillo County Commissioners Adriann Barboa and Debbie O’Malley, state Rep. Javier Martínez and state Sen. Linda Lopez, all Democrats.
Nobody was injured in the shootings and Pena is currently behind bars.
The majority of the Journal’s calls to relatives, business associates and acquaintances went unanswered. Nobody came to the door during a visit to the family home in Northwest Albuquerque – where a neighbor said a large family lived and relatives are always coming and going.
Julian Pena, who identified himself as a cousin of Solomon Pena, answered the phone at the home. He said he would talk – for the right price.
“It’s a pretty big story huh?” Julian Pena said.
He went on, “I mean, hey man, if CNN wants to call me and they want to work out a money arrangement. I’m all for that.”
The Journal, however, did not oblige.
Blurry childhood, rocky adolescence
Pena and his three brothers were born in Pasadena, California, to Mark and Lisa Pena. The family moved to New Mexico when the boys were very young.
Valenzuela said he was the spoiled one among the brothers and a little bit of a mama’s boy. She said all the boys were “brought up in church” and had a strong faith.
Valenzuela said Mark Pena had a good job and Lisa was a stay-at-home mom, handling the cooking and cleaning “like in the old days.”
“It wasn’t like they were crazy people,” Valenzuela said. “… We loved each other.”
She said Pena kept to himself as a child and she never heard him talk about what he wanted to be when he grew up. Never knew of a school crush.
“He was pretty quiet. He was pretty reserved,” Valenzuela said, adding that she was only in his life until he was 13 or 14 years old.
She didn’t recall any turbulence in Pena’s young life.
That changed when Pena was 14 years old, according to court records.
In November 1997, the teen was charged with battery against a household member. The following May, Pena faced the same charge again after hitting his father.
Court records show that Pena was placed on juvenile probation, which was revoked in December 1998 after he failed to complete a program at Charter-Heights mental health hospital.
Between April 1999 and July 2000, according to court records, Pena bounced between foster care, treatment centers and group homes. Pena was initially ordered to spend two years at Hogares Inc., a nonprofit group home for troubled teens.
By that time, the FBI and others had investigated Hogares for possible Medicaid fraud and mistreatment of the children housed there, including sexual abuse. Less than a year later, according to court records, Pena was moved to Casa Hermosa, a transitional living program to help youths leaving foster care.
It is unclear why he was relocated.
Pena graduated from Highland High School in 2000.
Valenzuela said he served in the Navy, but she did not have any other details.
Court records show his parents divorced in 2006, shortly after his father Mark Pena was arrested for drug possession. Mark Pena spent the next decade in and out of jail on drug possession and trafficking charges.
To this day he still has active warrants out for his arrest.
And Solomon Pena’s legal troubles began soon after his father’s.
Between February and April 2007, according to court records, Solomon Pena was wrapped up in an escalation of criminal activity as he and his girlfriend were pursued by apartment complexes for not paying rent.
In the first case, an officer caught Pena after he stole a car and then stole the belongings inside. In a second case, Pena stole a pool cue set, golf clubs, a Cowboys hoodie and other items, before his brother Joseph Pena sold the items on Ebay.
In the most serious case, Pena, his girlfriend, brother Aaron Pena and others committed large-scale burglaries of Circuit City, Kmart, Hastings and other stores – stealing thousands in electronics, jewelry and other goods. The burglars broke the front windows of the businesses and carried armfuls of stolen merchandise out and, in one instance, filled a shopping cart with items before fleeing.
In the second incident, Joseph Pena testified against him for leniency and, in the third, his brother, girlfriend and the others all took plea deals and testified against Pena, getting probation over jail time in return.
Authorities then tacked on a charge of intimidating a witness to Pena’s case.
In a Journal interview, the mother of Pena’s girlfriend, Nora Droll, still remembered the text messages more than a decade later.
“He said ‘all of our family is going to get shot,'” Droll told the Journal on Thursday. “… He was texting me and then he was following us around.”
Droll, who is still terrified of Pena, said the family moved from hotel to hotel under police watch for months. But she said Pena would still send messages: “I know where you’re at and you guys are going to get it.”
Droll said the family was granted a restraining order against Pena at the time, and said, “He never really found us.”
Throughout the proceedings, Pena never took a plea deal – rejecting multiple offers by prosecutors and the three cases were consolidated. Court records show Pena went to trial and lost, being sentenced in 2009 to more than 15 years in prison.
By that point he had been behind bars for more than two years.
In his first few years in prison Pena filed several appeals to his sentence, alleging that the charges were based on illegal seizures or had insufficient evidence.
None of the appeals was successful.
Then Pena turned his attention toward jail staff and the GEO Group that ran the prison, filing nine civil complaints in less than two years. In one complaint, Pena wrote he “somewhat is known as a jailhouse lawyer … known to assist other inmates” in defenses, grievances and appeals.
Almost all of the complaints Pena filed were for himself.
Most of the complaints were to enforce records requests that Pena submitted in relation to various grievances, particularly that he was not given the graveyard shift in the prison kitchen despite repeated requests.
At one point, according to court records, jail staff told Pena he couldn’t have the shift because he would “complain.” In the filings, Pena called complaining a constitutional right and said they were discriminating against him.
Some records requests were exhaustive and sought thousands in damages, in one filing Pena asked for the price of every tray of food served at the prison, where the food came from and its “nutritional compliance.”
All of the complaints were dismissed.
More of the same
After his release in 2016, Pena filed three more complaints aimed at the prison system, including that it did not provide him with a supply of medicine to keep treating a foot and windpipe disorder. He said the health issues were exacerbated by having to walk and take the bus around Albuquerque looking for a job.
Pena asked for $500,000 in damages. Like the others, it was dismissed.
Leonore Valenzuela said her grandson never reached out to family.
“He just wanted to be his own person – he never said why. He just didn’t communicate very much,” she said, adding, “Maybe he was embarrassed. Maybe he was ashamed. … I think he just disengaged himself. I don’t think he was even talking to his mom.”
Valenzuela said the family just waited for his call, but it never came.
Over the next few years, according to court records, Pena briefly worked at a call center and as a car salesman. He was fired from the first for committing fraud and the second for repeatedly showing up late, according to court records.
Pena reverted to his old instincts, suing both companies for money he believed he was owed from hours he worked or cars he sold. Both cases were dismissed.
Valenzuela said the family heard Pena had a nice car, a good job and was doing well for himself after getting out of prison.
“He seemed to be kind of a loner. I’m sure he had friends. We just didn’t know of them because we just didn’t connect that much,” she said.
Sharon Bode, a neighbor of Pena’s, said she was “profoundly disturbed” by his politics during the 2020 election. She said he bothered neighbors by putting a “(expletive) Joe Biden” flag in his window.
“I know that there were people who were disturbed by some of his behaviors,” Bode said. “He was very offensive in his language and opinions.”
She said her partner got into a few arguments with Pena in the lobby and around the building and “was offended by his way of talking to her.”
Bode said Pena wasn’t aggressive, just persistent in his views.
“When my partner died a year ago, he left a box of chocolates on my doorstep,” she said, adding that it came as surprise.
When asked if she ate them, Bode laughed heartily, “Does anybody not eat chocolate?”
Melanie Griego, the mother of Pena’s alleged accomplice Jose Trujillo, said she had known Pena “for some time now.”
She said they struck up “a casual friendship” in 2021 after meeting at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting while she was on probation.
She said Pena never talked politics, he was going to college and regularly went to church. Griego added, “He was just a good guy in my eyes.”
“He’s always been a very special person to me. I looked at him as somebody who is very smart and, a breath of fresh air, so to speak,” she said. “… I was under the impression that he had changed his ways and stuff – only time can tell I guess.”
Somewhere along the line, Pena set his sights on politics and enrolled in the political science program at the University of New Mexico.
It is unclear when Pena became an ardent supporter of Donald Trump but faculty and classmates said, despite being in virtual classes, Pena made his presence and viewpoints known.
A classmate of Pena’s said they were in Black Politics together.
She said the professor asked everyone to put their pronouns beside their Zoom name and Pena wrote “male” instead of a pronoun like “he,” “she” or “they.”
“So immediately, I kind of knew like he was probably conservative,” she said. “… I don’t know how deep his conservatism lies though … how far to the right he actually was at that point.”
Soon Pena and a classmate got into a heated discussion comparing the police response to Black Lives Matter protesters and the Jan. 6 rioters.
“He said ‘I was there, there was no attack on the Capitol.’ So, yeah, that was my first class with him,” the classmate said.
She said it was the first of many arguments with Pena that would derail class.
In one instance, the classmate said, Pena asserted that Black people killed more cops than cops killed Black people. She said she challenged his claim with the FBI’s website data and asked for his sources.
“He never followed up when it came to that,” the classmate said.
She said Pena would interrupt class and talk over the professor or other classmates. Eventually, the professor wouldn’t let Pena talk too long, would switch topics or tell him what he was saying “wasn’t factually true.”
During their last class, his classmate said she did a presentation on critical race theory teachings. Afterward, Pena asked her, “Why do you think brainwashing kids is OK?”
She said the professor told her she didn’t need to respond.
“I remember those types of things, like, ‘you can’t disagree with Solomon, because Solomon is always right,'” the classmate said. “… Every single talking point he had was definitely because he watched probably Tucker Carlson or something.”
Pena graduated in May 2021.
Valenzuela, his grandmother, said, “From what we would hear through the grapevine, we were so happy that he was doing well and got his degree.”
Pena entered the House District 14 race soon after graduating.
Republican leaders and benefactors who met him during his run, like Harvey Yates Jr., described him as nice and respectful, but quiet.
“When issues arose he might offer an opinion and they all seemed to be reasoned,” Yates said. “He was well dressed in a suit coat or something like that.”
Others felt Pena was out of his element – believing he was going to win due to the number of people telling him he had their vote “at the door.”
Yates said he knew of Pena’s felony record but believes in “redemption.”
“I believe it’s a real tough thing but there are so many people who need to get their lives changed around,” he said.
Coming off his election defeat, Bernalillo County Republicans elected Pena as a ward chairman on Jan. 14.
Less than two weeks earlier, according to police, Pena was in a car outside state Sen. Lopez’s home, armed with an AR pistol. He allegedly tried to shoot at the house but the gun jammed, so an accomplice fired with an automatic pistol.
Pena allegedly told his accomplices he wasn’t happy with the prior shootings – saying they should be more aggressive, “aim lower” and it should happen earlier when people weren’t “laying down.”
One accomplice reportedly told police Pena’s suggestion made them “uneasy.”
Valenzuela said the family didn’t even know of Pena’s campaign, or that it failed, until he made headlines.
The allegations shocked her.
“We just thought, ‘Wow, why would you want to do something like this?’ Of course, you’re only innocent until you’re proven guilty,” Valenzuela said.
She added, “I mean, he is family no matter what. He’s still family.”
Journal investigative reporter Elise Kaplan contributed to this report.