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Collaring the killers

The scene at a homicide investigation at Lincoln Heights Apartments in northeast Albuquerque in August. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The scene at a homicide investigation at Lincoln Heights Apartments in northeast Albuquerque in August. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The naked body was inside the trunk of a stolen car engulfed in flames behind the Wal-Mart near Coors and Interstate 40.

It was the middle of the night in March 2013. The victim was burned beyond recognition.

It would take police weeks to identify her and several months before they found a suspect. The case was brutal, long and complex, said APD homicide Sgt. Liz Thomson.

But it had something in common with most Albuquerque-area homicide investigations in recent years: It ended with an arrest and murder charges.

In recent years, few murders went unsolved in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County.

APD Sgt. Liz Thomson of the APD criminal investigations bureau. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

APD Sgt. Liz Thomson of the APD criminal investigations bureau. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

APD’s homicide clearance is consistently better than the national average, which hovers around 65 percent annually, according to reports. In 2013, an arrest was made in 30 of the 35 homicides, or 86 percent, Thomson said. The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office has cleared 90 percent of homicides dating back to the start of 2011.

To clear a homicide, investigators must make an arrest, rule that death was justified or determine that the offender is dead, such as a murder-suicide.

APD detectives also solved five murders from prior years in 2013, Thomson said. So the department reported a 100 percent clearance rate, or 35 for 35, to the FBI for the agency’s Uniformed Crime Reports that year.

Thomson said the case of an unidentified body in a burning stolen car exemplified a thorough and successful police investigation into a homicide.

“That case shows you have to have this incredible system of resources and contacts,” she said.

Albuquerque detectives tracked the car to its owner, who said it had been stolen by a woman he knew only from an online dating site. Police used that online dating profile and eventually determined the victim was Guadalupe Morales, 19. That, in turn, led to a collection of people for police to interview.

“She had a lot of boyfriends,” Thomson said. “So we started interviewing boyfriends …. She had stolen CDs from one of them and she had cheated on one of them. In other words, there was some drama in her life.”

RYALS: Charged with first-degree murder

RYALS: Charged with first-degree murder

One of those former boyfriends, Shaun Ryals, 21, had moved out of his apartment shortly after Morales’ death. By the time police entered with permission from the apartment owner, Ryals had cleaned it almost spotlessly – except for a tiny speck of blood the size of pinhead police eventually matched to Morales.

Luminol, used by forensic investigators to see trace evidence of blood, showed the clean apartment was once blood soaked.

“It was the most chilling and amazing things I’ve ever seen,” Thomson said. “The entire floor of this apartment (had been) blood. And you could see the mop marks where he had tried to clean it up.”

Ryals is in custody awaiting trial on charges that include first-degree murder.

Source of pride

Though statistics vary from year to year, Thomson said APD consistently scores well above the national average for homicide clearance rates. It’s a source of pride in the department.

“We’re very proud of that number,” she said. “It is a thing that’s talked about in the department, that homicide has really high clearance rates.”

Homicide clearance rates are significantly higher than other violent crimes in Albuquerque. In 2013, APD’s clearance rate for rapes was 35 percent, aggravated assaults 55 percent and robberies 23 percent, according to police statistics.

Thomson said APD policies call for a swift and significant response to a homicide.

“There is a huge response when somebody is murdered in Albuquerque,” Thomson said. “It’s very quick. And it’s very, very thorough.”

Whenever there is a homicide within city limits, within one hour APD will send a homicide sergeant, two homicide detectives, three violent crime detectives, a forensic supervisor, two forensic detectives and two detectives from special investigations. Those are in addition to first responders and personnel from other agencies, Thomson said.

homicideDeputy investigators who work homicides outside the city limits have also made arrests in recent homicides.

The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office has cleared 90 percent of homicides, or 18 of 20 cases, deputies have investigated since the start of 2011, homicide Sgt. John Allen said.

The sheriff’s office has investigated 10 homicides since the start of 2013 and cleared nine. They were five for six in 2012 and cleared all four homicides in 2011.

Allen said almost all homicide investigations at the sheriff’s office in recent years ended with an arrest.

He couldn’t think of any particular reason the sheriff’s office has a better percentage than agencies across the country.

“Nothing other than general hard work,” he said. “We get one and we work nonstop.”

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