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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
A construction crew working on Albuquerque’s West Mesa on Tuesday may have unearthed new evidence in New Mexico’s largest unsolved serial killing.
Albuquerque police say the crew found human remains while working with heavy machinery in a development next to the field where the bodies of 11 women, one of whom was pregnant, were found buried in shallow graves in 2009.
The case was known as the West Mesa Murders, and the victims all disappeared in 2003 and 2004.
Several other women with similar backgrounds were reported missing in 2005 and 2006. They have never been found, and police have long suspected there is a second burial site. But they said Tuesday it was too soon to know if the newly found remains are part of a second burial site, or if they’re even connected to the West Mesa case.
The remains were unearthed in a park being built in the middle of a subdivision called Sandstone Trails at Anderson Heights. It’s about a half-mile south of the original burial site, which is at 118th Street and Amole Mesa SW.
Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier, who led the team of investigators in 2009, said the scene felt like “déjà vu.”
“It looks like a burial,” he said. “There’s enough there to cause concern.”
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, who also was at the site Tuesday, said that for years construction crews working in the area have been under instructions to keep an eye out for human remains.
He said an arroyo used to run from the West Mesa burial site to the area where the remains were found Tuesday.
The crew with Franklin’s Earthmoving had excavated about a foot of earth when they found the bones. They immediately called police and were told to stop digging.
Geier said one set of remains was visible. Investigators don’t know if there are any others. He said it was too early to provide many details.
Keller said it could take weeks for investigators to sift through the empty lot.
“It’s like an archeological dig,” Keller said.
Geier said investigators plan to do just that, as they did after the West Mesa victims were found in 2009. He said some of the same people who investigated the case were on scene Tuesday, and the similarities between the two scenes were striking.
“It looks a little different but feels the same,” he said.
Simon Drobik, a spokesman for APD, said the body had been fully excavated by 9 p.m. Tuesday. The gender and identity haven’t been determined.
PNM will scan the dirt lot for power and gas lines today so that investigators can start digging later this week. They will look at old satellite imagery to try to find clues to where the earth was disturbed and other bodies might be buried.
That’s the same process police used in 2009 after a woman walking her dog found the first human bone.
“The community’s hurting and there’s a lot of things going on – a lot of old memories coming back up,” Drobik said. “It’s been so heavy for the city and we recognize that.”
On Tuesday, crime scene investigators photographed the construction site and a mobile crime lab and dozens of police vehicles lined the streets while detectives went door-to-door to speak with neighbors.
Rudy Vallez, Veralyas Portales and other neighbors sat in folding chairs in Vallez’s driveway across the street from the construction site as they watched police investigate.
“It’s not surprising,” Vallez said. “I bet there are bodies buried all over this desert.”
Vallez, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years, said neighbors had been asking for a park in the empty lot for some time.
“We were pushing for it,” he said.
Neighborhood kids have been playing for years on the dirt mounds where the remains were found, Vallez said.
Two years ago, Portales moved to the neighborhood from a home just blocks from the original burial site.
“The bodies have been following me around,” she said.
The first body discovered in the West Mesa case was in February of 2009. It took investigators a month to find all 11 bodies, and nearly a year to identify the women.
The case was national news. And investigators were under intense pressure to find the killer.
They investigated a handful of suspects and eliminated some. But there are still two men who have, to this day, never been ruled out: Lorenzo Montoya and Joseph Blea.
Montoya, 39, was killed in December 2006, after the West Mesa victims had disappeared but before their bodies were found. Blea, 61, is serving a 90-year prison sentence for a string of rapes unrelated to the West Mesa case.
It’s been years since the Waites family has heard any news about Shawntell Monique Waites, who disappeared in 2006 and has never been found.Family members have long believed her disappearance was connected to the West Mesa Murders case, and that there was a second burial site.Now they’re just waiting to see if the remains found Tuesday belonged to Waites or any of the other known missing women.
“I don’t want to get my hopes up on anything. So I’d rather just wait,” Waites’ daughter Saysonci Peters said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
But she said it wouldn’t surprise her if the remains found Tuesday were connected to the women who disappeared in 2005 and 2006.
“I’m just surprised that it took this long,” she said.
Arcelia Gonzales’ daughter disappeared in 2005. She said her heart jumped when she heard a body had been found near the West Mesa site.
“I’ve been praying for this, and if it’s God’s way of telling me where she is, I know he’s going to make me strong to overcome all this,” she said.
Peters said her family has already had to deal with the loss of her mom, but finding her body would still help give them closure.
“If we do find her body at least we know our search is over and we can put it to peace, pray over it,” she said.
– By Nicole Perez