In the 1980s, a young woman from Arroyo Hondo was in the running to be the Taos Fiesta Queen. Over the course of that summer, she visited the house of a renowned El Prado seamstress many times to get fitted for her elaborate, traditional outfit, always making sure to say “hi” to the woman’s 14-year-old son.
She graduated from high school and moved to Albuquerque, where she attended the University of New Mexico.
On June 22, 1988, 21-year-old Althea Oakeley was walking home from a party at a frat house after getting into a disagreement with her boyfriend. It was a Wednesday night around 8:15 when she crossed through the campus and down Buena Vista SE toward the home she shared with her brother.
She didn’t make it.
Instead, police say, a man attacked her, stabbing her four times before running off. Oakeley collapsed on a neighbor’s doorstep. She was taken to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where she died.
On Monday, a little more than 33 years after Oakeley’s death, Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina drove to Taos to tell her parents that detectives had solved the case.
It’s not something a police chief typically does. But for Medina, the case is personal — he is the son of the seamstress Oakeley had visited.
And two years after Oakeley’s death, Medina became the first recipient of a scholarship her parents set up in her name.
“I always remembered her… just the way she introduced herself to me and mom was just, like, somebody who’s confident and full of joy,” Medina said in an interview on Wednesday. “… I mean, I saw this happen for my entire life — when (fiesta) candidates come in, I saw different personalities over the years. Without a doubt, I can say (hers) was the most bubbly, positive personality … I think my mom would say that, too.”
Oakeley’s parents did not respond to messages from the Journal.
Suspect a ‘poster child’
When Medina spoke with the Journal, the suspect in the cold case had not yet been formally charged.
Medina said investigators expect to do so Thursday, which would have been Oakeley’s 55th birthday.
Until then, Medina said, he had to remain tight-lipped.
He and an Albuquerque Police Department spokesman did say the man, then in his 20s, was an apparent stranger to Oakeley and lived and worked in the area.
The suspect was arrested on an unrelated matter several weeks ago and is in custody.
“Just during the course of an arrest, he started talking and we started interviewing him,” Medina said.
He said the man has also confessed to other crimes, including homicides and sexual assaults, and is a “typical poster child” of a lifetime of interactions with the criminal justice system.
Although the case had gone cold, Medina said, it had stayed on his mind.
When he was promoted to commander in 2012, he asked investigators if there was anything they could do now that technology had advanced. He said he asked again when he was deputy chief in 2018.
Each time, he was told there were no new leads.
“They had some stuff but there was nothing they could ever move forward on,” Medina said.
He said that changed a couple of weeks ago when Kyle Hartsock, deputy commander of the Criminal Investigations Division, told him detectives were interviewing a suspect in another homicide who confessed to killing a young woman in the 1980s near UNM.
“I told him, ‘Kyle, you guys need to look at the Althea Oakeley case,’ ” Medina said. “And Kyle came back, and he’s, like, ‘Chief, it’s exactly that case.’ ”
‘Sense of closure’
In the aftermath of Oakeley’s death, the Journal and the Daily Lobo published articles about the incident — describing the suspect as Hispanic, 22 to 24 years old, 5-foot-7 to 5-foot-9 and weighing about 140 pounds. A sketch was released and distributed around the area.
More than 100 friends and community members — mainly women — and Oakeley’s parents attended a march to protest violence against women, demand better protections and express their anger and grief over her death. The group traveled the same path Oakeley had taken and distributed fliers with the sketch of the suspect.
In Taos, Oakeley’s parents set up a scholarship in her name.
The first recipient? A 1990 Taos High School graduate named Harold Medina.
“It really did help me,” Medina said. “… As a first-generation college graduate, it really helped me get through that first year. Namely, every penny helped back then.”
He said the news of Oakeley’s death had hit Taos and surrounding areas hard, and he and his parents would continue to see her parents occasionally around town.
When Medina traveled there Monday, flanked by a spokesman and Hartsock, Oakeley’s parents expected to hear that the case had been closed, he said.
“Right away, you know, they asked for my parents, how my mom and dad are doing, and I told them why we’re there,” Medina said. “And we told them that, you know, somebody is going to be charged in this, and they were just beyond words.”
He said the meeting was emotional and bittersweet.
“It’s tough because it’s reopening old wounds,” Medina said, adding that it also seemed to give the family a sense of closure. “But at the same time, there’s also that fear of, like, ‘God, we got to get a conviction on this.’ … There’s a whole worry of the court proceedings.”
Medina said he is reminded there are many other families seeking the same resolution, and he is looking for ways to improve how the department investigates cold cases. But it is also a case he feels good about crossing off his list.
“I just always wanted that case solved,” Medina said. “That’s why I’d asked people to keep looking at it. For me, it’s one of those things that I’m able to cross off my bucket list.”