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West Mesa killings left pain, questions that won’t go away

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A billboard at Central and I-25 asks for tips about the West Mesa case and other women who disappeared some time later. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Every day for the last 12 years, Arcelia Gonzales has asked God to bring her missing daughter back.

So far, there have been no answers. And sometimes, Gonzales is afraid of what the answer may be.

“Maybe I’m not ready,” she said. “Because if I do find what happened to her, I don’t know what will happen to me.”

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Interim Albuquerque Police Chief Mike Geier. Read excerpts from Geiers interview about the case.(Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Felipa “Vickie” Gonzales disappeared into Albuquerque’s underworld in 2005 and is one of at least six missing women who police believe may have been additional victims of the West Mesa killer.

Newly appointed Interim Albuquerque Police Chief Mike Geier is no stranger to New Mexico’s largest unsolved serial killer case, which still looms over his department.

Geier was the head of the department’s violent crimes division when the decomposed bodies of 11 women and an unborn child were pulled from a sandy strip of the West Mesa overlooking the city. The first bone was discovered nine years ago today.

For years, APD officials were reluctant to discuss the case publicly. But Geier was candid that the case has gone cold. A case is usually classified as cold after a year of no developments, he said.

“It’s still an active case, it’s not closed, that’s the distinction,” Geier said. “It just means right now everything has been exhausted.”

He spoke with the Journal at length about who the killer may be, how he plans to tackle the case and why it’s personal for everyone who’s worked on it.

Three years on case

Frustration is noticeable in Geier’s voice when he talks about the case.

“The man-hours were unbelievable. I would go in that room and they would be pounding their heads on the wall, ‘What did we miss here,’ ” he said. “You always wonder, what more could I have done. And they took it very personal.”

When Geier first started working on the case, he thought it would be solved within the year.

But three years later it was still open. Then he was assigned to be commander of the officers patrolling the streets of Southeast Albuquerque.

The West Mesa case was never far from his thoughts. Some nights he would drive down Central Avenue, hoping one of the girls on the stroll would wave him down with a tip.

It never happened.

Geier left APD to lead the Rio Rancho Police Department in 2014. But Albuquerque detectives kept trying to make headway.

Geier said they winnowed down the list of suspects from about four or five to two men: Joseph Blea and Lorenzo Montoya.

Both men are off the streets. Blea is in prison, and Montoya was killed while dragging a woman’s body out of his trailer after strangling her.

Geier said it’s always possible neither Blea nor Montoya is the killer. And he’s still going to evaluate what resources are currently on the case and whether he’ll make any changes.

Blea, 60, is serving a 90-year prison sentence on multiple rape convictions. He’s appealing his convictions, but if he loses the appeal he’ll spend the rest of his life locked up.

Blea has a history of assaulting women and prostitutes, and his DNA was found on the body of a dead prostitute in the 1980s. He has never been charged in that crime, but Geier said it’s one reason he considers him a suspect in the West Mesa case.

Geier said a detective has made the trip to speak to Blea multiple times in prison. Blea repeatedly denies involvement in the West Mesa slayings. But Geier hopes if Blea is the killer, he’ll eventually confess.

“If there’s something there, and he wants to let go of those demons, hopefully it’s someday before he meets his maker,” Geier said. “He’s not a young man anymore.”

Detectives have no such opportunity with Montoya. Instead, they have to rely on evidence gathered after he was killed.

Police have previously said they tested the carpet in Montoya’s trailer for the DNA of the West Mesa victims, but they didn’t get any matches.

Geier has not let go of the idea Montoya may be the killer. Montoya lived near the burial site and his previous crimes make him a strong suspect, Geier said.

He said he plans to retest the Montoya evidence for DNA. And he’s hopeful that updated technology will give detectives a hit.

After the women’s remains were found on the mesa in 2009, the case made national headlines. Another group didn’t get that kind of attention. Geier, detectives on the case and family members believe there may be more victims who haven’t been located.

Geier said investigators used satellite imagery, helicopters and ground-penetrating radar to search for a second site where these women may be buried. They had no success.

“My biggest fear is that it’s there somewhere where we can’t access it because of development,” he said. “And I don’t know how, without having some solid links, we could cut through somebody’s basement or something like that.”

What happened to these still-missing women, and where they are, remains a mystery.

Second group missing

All of the women who were found on the West Mesa disappeared between 2003 and 2004. But there was another group of women who vanished from Albuquerque soon after.

Felipa “Vickie” Gonzales, Nina Herron, Leah Peebles, Anna Vigil, Shawntell Monique Waites and Vanessa Reed disappeared in 2005 and 2006.

Like the women found on the mesa, they shared a similar lifestyle.

And advocates believe there may be even more women who are part of the case.

All the missing women left behind parents, siblings and young children. Their families feel forgotten in the conversation.

“It’s not just the women who are lost, it’s the families that are lost, too,” said Saysonci Peters, the daughter of Shawntell Monique Waites, who disappeared in 2006. “We don’t have a body, we don’t have a place that we can go visit, we have nothing. Her memory just keeps fading and fading.”

Peters says she struggles to remember her mom’s voice. Her mom now has eight grandkids whom she may never meet.

The toll these cases has taken on the women’s families is not lost on Geier.

“What tore my heart apart is when we would look at family albums and pictures and stuff they would bring of when they were little kids,” Geier said. “These were still their families, their babies at one time, and we all have family members who sometimes go off track. They’re still going to always wonder, what happened to my baby.”

That’s why he so desperately wants to get these families closure.

“We’re not going to give up,” he said. “I don’t want them to ever think that the police forgot.”

Nina Herron left behind a 5-year-old son when she disappeared. His grandmother, Theresa Fresquez, said he’s going to take online high school classes instead of going to school.

“He used to get depressed when I used to leave him at school. He would think I would never return for him,” she said. “It’s been hard, real hard, especially on her birthday. There are days that we, we miss her so much.”

Nina’s birthday is today, the same day the first bone was found on the West Mesa.

Fresquez and her teenage grandson will eat cake. Nina would be 34.

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