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The year was 2005 and detective Ida Lopez – recovering from surgery for kidney cancer and the birth of her youngest son – had just transferred to the Albuquerque Police Department’s missing persons unit.
Lopez had been with the department for 10 years at that point and had built up a rapport with some of the women who worked the streets. She would talk to them about their lives and understood that they were doing things that only a person who was really desperate would do.
So when she was assigned to investigate several cases of women who had been reported missing, she felt something about the cases was off.
“My supervisor says, ‘Here’s three girls. They’ve got a history of drug addiction and prostitution, but prostitutes go missing,'” she recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, they do. But they get found.'”
So the search began.
Before long Lopez started to believe that “if you find one you’re going to find them all.”
That’s exactly what happened.
Less than four years later, 11 women were found buried in 100-acre dirt lot on the far west side of town. They are believed to have been victims of a serial killer.
All but one, who was not from Albuquerque, had been on Lopez’s list.
From the time she got the call telling her one of her “girls” had been identified – remembering that moment she trails off, her hand over her heart – Lopez, now 55, has made the investigation her life’s work.
She and Elizabeth Thomson, a 63-year-old retired homicide sergeant who returned to APD on a contract basis in 2021 – are still searching for eight other women who have never been found. They want the women’s families to know they haven’t been forgotten.
The investigators don’t know for certain, but they believe they may have met a similar fate as the women buried on the West Mesa.
“They’re our drive to keep going,” Lopez said. “If we find them, they’ll give us answers as to who the suspect is, or more about the whole case, in general.”
Searching for leads
In February of 2009, the skeletons of 11 women – one of whom had been four months pregnant – were found buried in a vacant plot of land on the corner of Amole Mesa and 118th Street SW. A subdivision was planned for the lot but it had not been developed when a Shar-Pei mix named Ruca on a walk with her owner found the first bone.
The women, many of whom struggled with drug addiction and trauma and had been working as prostitutes on East Central, had all been reported missing between 2003 and 2004. Because they had been dead and buried for years their cause of death could not be determined.
But there were other women who were living similar lifestyles – many of whom had been reported missing in the following two years – whose bodies were not found on the mesa.
That leads investigators to believe there is a second burial site. Perhaps whoever was responsible for killing the women was forced to move to another location as subdivisions began springing up on Albuquerque’s West Side.
Lopez has compiled a list of eight women – one who was reported missing in 2003 and seven who were reported missing in 2005 and 2006 – who she believes could have been killed by the same suspect.
“I always think there was so much dirt placed on the original graves when they were getting ready to set it up as a residential community that I just think chances are we would never have found them,” she said. “I don’t know where these other girls are. Are they in the East Mountains? Are they on the West Side? Or somewhere completely outside of Albuquerque?”
Over the past several years, APD has done three digs, but each time it struck out.
In 2018, bones that were discovered not far from the original site were later determined to have been from ancient Native Americans. Later that year, a tipster pointed to a spot where there appeared to be indentations in the ground in the shape of a square. Investigators dug by hand and then brought in heavy equipment but the marks that had once looked to be graves turned out to just be full of hard clay.
Last year, someone who worked with mapping systems suggested another site, but that too turned up empty.
Two persons of interest have been publicly identified over the years but the investigators say they don’t have enough information to conclusively point to – or rule out – either one. One was killed in 2006, after the last woman was reported missing. The other was sentenced to 90 years in prison for an unrelated rape case.
The crimes also could have been committed by a completely different person.
“We have to go back to what we know about this person,” Thomson said. “So we know this person had the ability, and the resources, to dig very precise graves and that this was a thought-out thing. (The women) didn’t have clothing, they didn’t have personal items, the graves were deep enough that apparently this person meant to conceal them for a very long time.”
The department gets tips on the case almost daily and even more when the case is mentioned in local media, podcasts or true crime shows. Lopez said they chase every one down.
Some they are able to quickly determine are baseless. But others have seemed promising.
Thomson urged anyone who hung around Central during that time to try to remember any clues. Did they see a car in the area that they thought was suspicious or any other small detail that now seems significant?
“This included, for example, an anonymous person actually giving names and very specific details,” Thomson said. “Tips like that are wonderful … we really would like that person or persons to reach out to us again. And if they have that kind of information, keep reaching out to us if there’s anything more that you can think of and give – please.”
She said in some ways the investigation has gotten easier over time as technology advanced.
“We’ve been going and reviewing evidence,” Thomson said. “Is there something new technology wise that could test this piece of evidence and tell us something important? And we’ve been looking at what do we know about this person of interest? And is there technology available to us now, that could actually analyze that in a better way?”
‘One day closer’
Lopez and Thomson met with the Journal on the corner of Central and Grove, in front of what is now the shiny, new International District Library.
It was one of the summer’s hottest days, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, and yet there was still plenty of commotion as people walked up and down the sidewalks, shouting to one another, pushing shopping carts or trying to catch a bus.
Gesturing to the dilapidated sign for the now-demolished Caravan East nightclub, Lopez said this was a corner she knew well. On her shifts she would drive up and down this stretch of Central, pulling over to talk to the women she saw standing on the street corners. Often she would tell her husband – an APD officer who worked in the Southeast Area Command on an opposite shift – where she was if she didn’t have time to call in her location.
“I would just pull up, I had a slick top, I would just show her my badge and then I would say ‘I’m not going to run you. But I need to ask some questions …,'” the soft-spoken Lopez said. “For the most part they were willing to talk and so I would ask them for any rumors. The younger they were the more they didn’t know the girls. The older ones did.”
Lopez herself grew up near Downtown, near Lomas and 9th, and was raised by her grandparents. She remembers coming up to the area near East Central to go swimming or, when she was older, to go cruising. She always knew she wanted to be a police officer and studying psychology in school she was fascinated by profiles of serial killers, pedophiles and domestic violence.
Lopez retired from APD in 2014 and moved with her husband, two sons and two dogs, to California, where her family lives. In 2015 she was given a contract with the department to continue investigating the case and when she comes back to Albuquerque a couple of times a year she’s eager to eat at Dion’s and Blake’s Lotaburger.
The family’s house has an office dedicated to the investigation – a map of Albuquerque on the wall has markers designating where the women were last seen and other points of interest. Lopez still speaks regularly with many of the mothers whose daughters are still missing. Some will call her whenever they hear anything they think might be a clue.
“The parents were tired,” she said. “It’s not any fault of their own. At the time, it was just what came with this horrible cycle of addiction – they were tired but they loved their daughters. They would hope they would get better.”
She said she will never lose hope that the mystery of what happened to the women buried on the West Mesa – and to those who have never been found – will be solved and she hopes she’s still around to see it.
“As long as I know I’ve done everything, we’ve done everything, it’s out of my control …,” she said. “I used to tell the families, ‘We’re one day closer to finding your daughters,’ and my thing to get me through this is we’re one day closer to finding the answers.”