ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — They found her, a part of her, 15 years after she had disappeared one night from her parents’ apartment in the La Mesa neighborhood of Northeast Albuquerque, leaving behind her purse, her makeup, her money, her medicine, her jewelry, a plate of fries and a soda she had just gotten as a snack.
Terry Reyes, 17, hadn’t gone willingly the night of July 1, 1998, her family believes. Or if she had, she hadn’t stayed willingly. Not for 15 years. Now without a word. Not without a trace.
Terry’s family prayed for her safe return, for answers. They searched for her on Albuquerque streets, at the State Fair and through missing persons posters and websites. They begged law enforcement to keep investigating her disappearance. She was not a runaway, they insisted, but an endangered youth because of her bipolar disorder. Off her meds, she had likely become disoriented and in danger.
Finally, last month, they had an answer. They had a trace.
And then many, many more questions.
On a cold day in December 2004, a rancher spotted a bleached skull partly buried in the sandy bottom of a dry creek bed off a gated dirt road on a remote stretch of Jemez Pueblo land 65 miles northwest of Albuquerque.
The lower jaw and all but one of the upper teeth were missing. No signs of trauma were found to the skull itself that might have indicated how death had come.
A grid search of the area conducted by the FBI and tribal police found a few chips of what might have been leg bone. Nothing else was found. Maybe animals had scattered the remains far afield. Maybe something, someone else had.
The skull was packaged in a brown bag and taken to the state Office of the Medical Investigator, where it was labeled Jane Doe No. 2004-05689. A reconstruction of the face was created and sent, along with what little was known, to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, an online centralized repository and resource center for missing persons and unidentified decedent records.
In early 2005, the skull was shipped to the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Va., to extract what DNA could be had for possible matching through a national database known as the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. Backlogs, high demand and the complications of extracting enough DNA from weathered bone left to the elements delayed results until April 2006, and then only a partial DNA profile was obtained.
That same month, the Journal posted a short item about the skull under the headline “Missing Person.”
No tips came in.
A more complex “nuclear” DNA profile was not obtained until October 2011. Still, CODIS yielded no hits, no information as to whom the skull had belonged to other than it had been that of a Hispanic or mixed-race woman between the ages of 20 and 35.
The skull was returned to the OMI in January 2012, still a Jane Doe.
Meanwhile, Terry’s family, unaware of the skull, continued the search. In 2002, Terry’s mother, Teresa Reyes, sat down with me for the first article of any length about her missing daughter.
No tips came in.
In February 2007, and at the request of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Reyes submitted a DNA sample to be placed into CODIS. That was not enough to match the partial DNA profile of the skull that had already been in the database a year.
To increase the chances of a match – and still without any knowledge that the skull had been found – Terry’s sister, Diane Reyes, and brother, Benny Reyes, provided DNA samples for CODIS in April 2013.
Three months later, CODIS had a match.
“All that time, we never knew Terry was just sitting in a box,” says Celine Wisely, Benny Reyes’ fiancée and the impromptu spokeswoman for a family still in shock. “It was like a reopening of the wound.”
And a dissolution of the hope that the beautiful girl with the cascade of curls and deep dimples would one day be found alive.
On Sept. 26, Terry came home, her cremains in a black urn surrounded by a halo of red roses.
Two weekends ago, family members drove out to the site off N.M. 550 and Tribal Road 279 where Terry’s remains had been found.
“I just had to see it for myself,” her mother said.
They tied ribbons and flowers in a nearby juniper. They walked and scanned the endless hills of sand and sage for pieces of Terry, for anything that might explain how she ended up so far from home.
For who killed her.
The case remains under the care of APD missing persons detective Ida Lopez, the same investigator who handled the cases of the 11 women found buried in shallow graves on the mesa west of Albuquerque in 2009. For a time, Lopez had imagined Terry would be among those women.
For now, there is nothing more to go on than the skull.
But somebody out there has the answers. Fifteen years later, maybe somebody will talk.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.