ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s just over four years since the first human bone was found on a dusty stretch of the West Mesa, the first grisly discovery that led to remains of 11 women, most of them known prostitutes, who were murdered and buried in shallow graves.
Christine, an Albuquerque prostitute since the early 2000s, says her interactions with police have changed since then.
Before, police would “laugh at us” if we were raped or attacked, she said.
“The cops are so cool with us now,” Christine said recently, as she waited in a line to get clean heroin needles at the center of the International District. “The cops do not mess with us. They put (accused rapists) in jail for us. … They’re not trying to bust us.”
Police Chief Ray Schultz said in an interview Thursday that there has been a conscious shift within APD to be more responsive to women involved in prostitution.
“Our vice unit in particular has been very aware when they’re investigating these cases that often these women aren’t doing this because they want to,” Schultz said. “So, yes, we’re working differently with this particular part of the community.”
The chief also said the West Mesa murder mystery is still an active case at APD. He said he was “optimistic” about someday solving it, but detectives still haven’t gotten the one piece of concrete evidence they’ve hoped for since 2009.
Tips, which numbered in the hundreds in the months after investigators began excavating what became the largest crime scene in American history near 118th Street and Dennis Chavez SW, have slowed to a trickle in the past year or so, Schultz said.
Detectives continue to follow leads, he said, although most of them point in the direction of the same small group of possible suspects who have been on APD’s radar since the beginning.
APD has never publicly identified any of those suspects.
‘Bad Date List’
The shift to amicable interactions between cops and prostitutes is just one of several changes that affect a fringe population often victimized by serial killers.
Prostitutes are often estranged from their families, have no support networks and are easy prey for men with evil intentions. Potential victims are easily lured into cars and private spaces, and often, no one comes looking should one of these women disappear.
Some of the victims unearthed from graves on the West Mesa were not reported missing for several months.
Christine Barber is a co-founder of Safe Sex Work, an organization that reaches out to city prostitutes to give them support and resources and hear their stories. The group also posts and sends to police a “Bad Date List,” which features descriptions of men who have attacked or raped prostitutes.
Barber said the West Mesa murders played a large role in the group’s creation. She goes out three times a week and has spoken with hundreds of prostitutes who open up to her about their fears, survival strategies and day-to-day lives.
Though many Albuquerque residents may have long since stopped discussing the murders, prostitutes still live in fear, especially since no one has been caught.
“It comes up at least once a week,” Barber said. “He is their bogeyman, to tell you the truth.”
The murders also sparked a malicious strategy some of these “bad dates” use to ensure a prostitute’s compliance. At least three men have told prostitutes in recent weeks that they are the West Mesa killer.
“They use that to try and intimidate them,” Barber said. “It’s when he’s trying to instill the fear. It’s like saying he’s Dracula.”
Since the murders, Barber and Christine, the prostitute, said sex workers have come up with new and effective strategies to mitigate the risks. Some of these techniques include:
♦ Prostitutes ask a john to drive for two blocks and then stop, generally along Central Avenue. If he doesn’t, that means the man has his own plans, so women will yank the emergency brake or jump out of the car.
♦ Women will approach potential clients from the driver’s side door, not the passenger side as depicted in many movies, in order to better determine if he’s holding a gun or other weapon.
♦ Some prostitutes spend more time chatting with johns before they agree to do business, alert to nervous tics or shaky hands.
♦ Albuquerque prostitutes make sure a john’s passenger side door has a handle and/or a functioning window.
“We make sure we can get out,” Christine, the prostitute said. “We talk to them for a second before we get in. The girls are way more cautious because of (the murders).”
Additionally, Christine said the women who lurk on Central Avenue have become closer and more involved in one another’s lives since the murders came to light.
“We talk to each other. We tell each other,” she said. “We’re, like, watching out for each other.”
And Barber said the group, which was founded in October, intends to set up a check-in system among Albuquerque prostitutes in order to have a means of alerting authorities and/or a sex worker’s family should she go missing.
Such a system could put police on the trail early on if a pattern emerged, Barber said.
“That’s why the West Mesa killer was able to do it,” she said. “No one noticed they were gone.”
The West Mesa victims disappeared between late 2003 and early 2005.
The specter of the West Mesa murders might also discourage some at-risk women from becoming prostitutes, according to “Shorty,” an Albuquerque woman who was also in line at the needle exchange.
“Shorty” was considering selling herself to pay for her drug habit. She got so far as flagging down a potential client and opening the car door, but then she remembered the fates of 11 women in similar situations.
“That’s the first thing that came to my mind,” she said. “I couldn’t step in the car.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal