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‘Forgotten’ woman’s tragic story matters

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A film crew for one of those ubiquitous true crime shows was in town last week shooting an episode about a local murder case and needed to interview the journalist who covered the case.

They couldn’t find one.

Although Verenanda Flores, 24, had lived among us in Albuquerque, it was as if she had never existed here, her disappearance days before Christmas 2014 receiving little public notice save for a quick mention on TV news, a spot on Spanish radio, a notice from Albuquerque Crime Stoppers and an article in the Las Vegas (N.M.) Optic, her family’s hometown newspaper, nearly two months after her disappearance.

That her death went so unnoticed made her ending seem all the more sad.

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But she had mattered.

I’ve done more of these true crime shows than I can count, because I’ve covered more true crime than I wish I had to count, and they all matter.

The film crew, from the show “Who Killed Jane Doe,” which airs on Investigation Discovery channel, called me as a last resort. I learned what I could about Nanda, the name Flores went by.

Now I think it’s time you learn about Nanda, too.

Verenanda Flores, 24, disappeared Dec. 21, 2014, in Albuquerque. Her remains were not found until April 7, 2015, off Interstate 40 in Oklahoma and not identified until Aug. 30, 2016. (Courtesy of the Flores family)

She was the daughter of Paula Gutierrez and Lorenzo Flores of Las Vegas, N.M.; one of five siblings and half-siblings. She was a small-town girl who dreamed of something bigger, something better, which sometimes led her to push boundaries in ways that made her mother cringe.

Still, when Gutierrez fell ill, it was Nanda, then 21, who set aside her wilder ways and big city dreams to become her caretaker for the next three years.

But when her mother’s health improved in 2013, Nanda headed for Albuquerque.

She told her family things were going well. She had a good job at a tax firm, she told them. She had friends. She had a boyfriend, and they had moved in together to a nice apartment, where she was excited to entertain the family come Christmas.

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But as the holidays neared, Nanda became harder to reach. Calls were not returned. She stopped showing up for visits. Christmas came and went.

On Dec. 30, 2014, Nanda’s family filed a missing persons report with the Albuquerque Police Department. Detective Daniel Torgrimson was assigned to the case.

Only then, through his investigation, did the family learn that Nanda’s big city dreams had become the stuff of a mother’s nightmares.

“Things,” Gutierrez said, “did not turn out so good.”

Nanda, they learned, was using heroin, paid for with the money she made through an online escort service. The nice apartment was a mobile home on Utah SE, a rough part of town.

Friends told Torgrimson that she was trying to get clean, trying to get clear of the muck she had fallen into. She just ran out of time.

On Dec. 21, 2014, one of those friends told the detective he offered to buy Nanda a dress to wear to a real job interview. Nanda kept him waiting for hours.

At 5:12 p.m., she texted him: “I am sorry I just had to do some stuff almost done.”

Juan Manuel Gonzalez

Those were the last words she wrote.

Someone else had texted her earlier that day. Juan Manuel Gonzalez, a 40-year-old long-haul truck driver from Glendale, Ariz., told the detective he contacted Nanda through the escort service, not for sex but to ease his loneliness on the road. A few drinks, a few laughs at a casino and that was it, he told police.

Months passed. Few tips came in. Then, on April 7, 2015, highway workers off Interstate 40 near Hinton, a small town west of Oklahoma City, found the remains of a woman wearing only socks and jewelry.

On Aug. 30, 2016, the remains were identified as Nanda’s. Three days later, trucker Gonzalez was charged in Nanda’s death.

Because Oklahoma prosecutors could not determine the cause of Nanda’s death, given the decomposition of her remains and the lack of supportive evidence, Gonzalez was offered a deal this May that allowed him to plead guilty to manslaughter and unlawful removal of a body in exchange for 12 years in prison followed by 30 years of probation.

Gutierrez said the family was unhappy with the plea but understood.

“The way we saw it, this guy had a big chance of walking and we didn’t want that,” she said.

Because of the plea, Gonzalez has never had to reveal what happened to Nanda that night – or whether other victims are buried along the interstates he traveled.

Nanda was brought home for a proper burial, back to the small town where she had once dreamed so big.

Her mother remembers her not for the bad choices that led to her death but the good ones in her life.

“Nanda was a kind person, a giving person,” she said. “She loved music, she was creative. She loved making things with her hands. She just wanted to try something new and it didn’t turn out well. But she mattered.”

Maybe now she matters a little more to you, too.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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