Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
It has been 10 years.
Ten years since that cold, blustery, February evening when Christine Ross took her dog Ruca, a Shar-Pei mix, to an empty lot near her West Side Albuquerque home.
Ruca, off leash, scampered up ahead and uncovered a human femur bone.
So began the investigation into the deaths of 11 women buried in once-shallow graves on the West Mesa. It’s one of the largest unsolved serial killing cases in the country’s recent history.
These days, many of the initial investigators have retired or moved out of state. One – Michael Geier – is now chief of the Albuquerque Police Department.
Some family members of the women return to the site periodically to honor their loved ones. Others have since died.
The case remains a mystery.
It started in 2003, when women began to vanish from the streets of Albuquerque. Over the next three years, a total of 17 women were reported missing in similar circumstances.
Many had worked as prostitutes, and their families did not realize they had disappeared until weeks or months after they were last seen. But they were also mothers, sisters, daughters and friends.
The remains of 11 of those women and an unborn child were found in the empty lot on the corner of Amole Mesa and 118th Street SW.
Jamie Barela, a 15-year-old who was last seen alive heading to a park with her cousin, 23-year-old Evelyn Salazar. Salazar was also found buried on the mesa. Michelle Valdez, 22, who was four months pregnant when she was killed. The remains of her unborn child were also found on the mesa. Syllannia Edwards, 15, a runaway from Oklahoma, was the only out-of-state victim. And Julie Nieto, 23, a tiny woman who grew up in Albuquerque and Los Lunas and was last seen at her grandfather’s house before she was supposed to pick up her son from the school bus.
No one has been charged in their murders, but two men have been publicly named as suspects: Joseph Blea and Lorenzo Montoya.
Blea, 61, is locked up on a 90-year prison sentence for numerous sexual assaults unrelated to the West Mesa case. He was known to frequent prostitutes and was known in the area of East Central, from which many of the women went missing.
Montoya was killed in 2006 – a little more than two years before any of the bones were found, but after the last woman was reported missing. He strangled a woman working as an escort in his mobile home and was shot by the woman’s boyfriend.
APD still has a room dedicated to the investigation. Its walls are covered with dry erase boards, photographs, stacks of documents and filing cabinets.
Detectives still consider the case active. They chase down tips, follow leads and trek out to the mesa whenever someone finds something that looks suspicious.
There’s been speculation that whoever was responsible for killing the women stopped burying them at that spot on the mesa as subdivisions began springing up on Albuquerque’s West Side. The six women who went missing under similar circumstances in the later years have not been found.
And, police say, the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008 meant the lot remained undeveloped for years. If the planned subdivision had been built, the bones would likely have never been found.
Paul Feist retired from APD seven years ago and now spends his days playing golf near his Four Hills home.
But he has held on to mementos from his time as the chief crime scene investigator on the West Mesa case: a piece of petrified wood he found at the site, a binder full of photographs and satellite images.
Feist recalls working each day for three months from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., combing “every inch” of 100 acres with paint brushes, shovels and tractors. They discovered that some of the graves were manicured, likely dug in advance.
“There was no clothing, it was just bones,” he said.
Investigators brought in archaeologists, ground penetrating radar, cadaver dogs and a psychic. They even elicited the help of an astrologer to find out if the graves mirror any zodiac signs or constellations. No patterns emerged.
Feist’s team found high-definition aerial photographs that showed the desert floor before the dirt was moved for construction.
In those photographs, investigators could see blemishes that suggested graves.
They mapped the blemishes using GPS, and every time they dug into the earth, another woman was found.
Former APD Chief Ray Schultz said the department spent weeks flying over the city, looking for similar scarring on the desert floor and digging in, searching for another burial site.
They didn’t find it.
“So we basically went and investigated hundreds of other spots,” he said. “We found all kinds of stuff from animals that had been buried out in the mesa to pieces of debris.”
These days, Schultz is the police chief of Memorial Villages – a cluster of small communities he describes as an island surrounded by Houston. There are only five businesses and almost all the roads are cul-de-sacs or dead ends.
When he visits Albuquerque, he looks out the plane window, scanning the desert for another burial site.
“It was right there in plain sight, and nobody had seen it,” he said.
No moving on
Eleanor Griego’s daughter Julie Nieto was found buried on the mesa. She can’t ever truly move on.
In a recent interview at her South Valley home, Griego recalled having breakfast at a neighborhood McDonald’s back in 2009 and overhearing a conversation about the women getting what they deserved.
“My dad was there, and he got up and told them, ‘One of those kids was my granddaughter,’ ” she said. “They got up and took off right away.”
Griego has emerged as one of the main voices of the victims’ families. A couple of years ago, she flew to Florida for an interview with the show “Investigation Discovery.”
“I don’t mind getting the story out for the reason of finding who did this to the girls,” she said. “I don’t want to talk to people if they just want to gossip or put the girls down.”
Nieto’s son was 3 years old when she disappeared in 2004 and 8 or 9 when her body was found. Now he’s 19 and about to graduate high school.
“He does carry the weight, but he refuses to talk about it,” she said. “He doesn’t want to know nothing about it. He wants to live a normal life.”
Women who survived on the street back then recall a stretch of uncertainty and fear when the women started disappearing, and again after the bones were found and the women identified.
Kristy Lopez said she worked alongside two of the victims – Evelyn Salazar and Cinnamon Elks – on Central Avenue.
One by one, they vanished. It wasn’t long before rumors spread that they had been buried on the mesa.
“It hit me really hard, especially when I got sober. I had suppressed my emotions for so long,” Lopez said. “That could’ve been me, I could’ve been that girl that jumped in that car.”
Lopez has since given up that life but she says she worries that the women who are living it today are just as vulnerable.
“People started forgetting about the girls on the West Mesa. It faded away,” she said. “There’s still a lot of danger out there on Central.”
The serial killings inspired Christine Barber, the executive director of the non-profit Street Safe New Mexico, to make it her mission to provide a safety net for women who are selling sex, addicted to drugs or living on the street.
“That horror I felt when I realized that those 11 women went missing,” Barber said. “All of us, the entire community, didn’t even notice. We weren’t even told, and if we were told, we didn’t pay attention until their bodies were found.”
Ten years later, Street Safe keeps track of the women they serve and notes if anyone hasn’t been seen in a while.
They periodically distribute a “bad guy list” – short descriptions of men who women say assaulted, raped or robbed them.
“I can tell you now who’s missing and who isn’t,” Barber said. “At the moment, we probably only reach a quarter of the women who are out there, but with any luck, if it was to happen again, we could at least sound the alarm.”
Case still active
APD still gets about 1,000 tips a year about the case and considers it active, albeit slow moving.
Just two months ago, investigators took ground penetrating radar to the mesa when callers reported a strange patch in the desert. Nothing was there.
Lt. Scott Norris was a beat cop in the southeast and valley area commands around the time the site was discovered. Now he’s in charge of the violent crimes division and oversees the 118th Street task force and other units.
He said three cold case detectives are assigned to the task force, up from a couple of years ago when there was only one. Ida Lopez, the original missing persons detective investigating the women’s disappearances, also works with the task force on a contract basis.
Technology has advanced significantly since the initial days of the investigation, and Norris said the detectives continue to send evidence away for DNA testing.
“As this technology grows and becomes better, we can re-submit things for testing that earlier technology may not have picked up on,” he said.
And, Norris said, he can’t stress enough that every bit of information is important.
“There’s no tip that’s insignificant; the littlest thing could lead to a break in the case,” he said. “There are no lulls in the investigation.”
The victims have all been laid to rest, many of them re-buried under simple gravestones and decorative trinkets at cemeteries around the city and the state.
There’s not much to see at the original site where the women’s bodies had lain for so many years. Coyotes bob and weave over low dirt hills, scattered with tufts of desert grasses, pints of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky and other trash.
But there is also the poured oval concrete of an unfinished park, ringed by chain-link strung between fence posts.
Someday, it will be a memorial to the women and the unborn child who had been buried there.
For city officials, the only question is when.
Local politicians secured a little more than half the funding to build the park, but construction has stalled. Another $300,000 is needed to finish the memorial.
Eventually, there will be grass in the middle and 11 benches with the victims’s names engraved on them. Each family chose a tree to represent their loved one.
Philip Cleland, the spokesman for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said the women’s families were heavily involved in the park’s design.
“They wanted this to be more of a contemplative place,” he said. “Not solemn, but serious, contemplative and dignified.”
Councilors Ken Sanchez and Klarissa Peña pushed for a memorial for years until the first funding came in. The city broke ground in 2018. Peña hopes it will be done before 2020.
“I really want to get it done this year” she said. “The family members have waited way too long. If it’s the last thing I do, we’re getting there.”
For her part, Ross – the owner of the dog that discovered the first bone – moved to Arizona but continues to think about the case almost every day. Ruca, now 12 years old and partially blind, still likes to wander off leash.
“It’s always going to be a part of me,” Ross said. “I think about whoever did this horrible crime. Are they ever going to be caught? Are they still alive?”