Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
On Monday, Eleanor Griego will perform a somber ritual.
She will walk past a barbed-wire fence strewn with roadside litter and step over a concrete wall into a dusty vacant lot. She’ll be carrying 12 red balloons.
One balloon is for her daughter, Julie Nieto. The rest are for the 10 other women and one unborn baby found buried six years ago in shallow graves in the soft desert sand on Albuquerque’s West Mesa.
Griego first visited the site in 2009, not long after a woman walking her dog on Feb. 2 found a human bone. The discovery sparked a massive excavation project at what police called the largest crime scene in American history. No one knew at the time that Griego’s daughter, who had been reported missing, was buried there.
“It was like a ghost walked right through me and I got dizzy, everything went dark,” Griego said of that early visit. “I got weak and just collapsed. It’s a mother’s thing, you can tell when something’s wrong.”
The burial site remains an open sore in the southwest Albuquerque landscape and the case remains unsolved. Police are looking for a serial killer who preyed on women living on the fringes of society – many had drug problems and most had been charged with prostitution in the past.
“That’s where we’re at, just waiting patiently for something to happen,” said Dan Valdez, whose pregnant daughter Michelle was buried naked in a plastic bag. “That’s the hard part, the wait. There are no answers, only the chase.”
Albuquerque Police Department Detective Ida Lopez, who served as a glue for many of the families, retired and left the case over the summer. Detective Mark Manary, a 15-year veteran of the department, applied for the spot and has taken over the case.
Most family members were contacted by detectives when the case changed hands, but others are angry at the department’s leadership, saying they haven’t provided an update in years.
“I haven’t heard anything about my sister,” said Julie “Bubbles” Gonzales, whose sister Doreen Marquez was found buried on the mesa. “We want to feel less forgotten.”
Nearly six years to the day after the case began, police may have done something that speaks to that concern.
Late Friday, for the first time, they confirmed the identities of two men being investigated in the murders.
Their names are Lorenzo Montoya and Joseph Blea.
Police spokesman Tanner Tixier said police don’t have enough evidence to call either man a suspect, but they also don’t have enough evidence to rule them out.
Not long after the burial site was found, then-Police Chief Ray Schultz said police were looking into a man who was shot and killed after he strangled a prostitute to death in December 2006. An earlier Journal report about that murder named the man as 39-year-old Lorenzo Montoya.
Joseph Blea, who is 57, was named as a suspect in a KRQE-TV report last year.
“There are histories and patterns there that are concerning,” Tixier said about both men.
Montoya was previously charged with raping and choking a prostitute, but those charges were dismissed.
“There is good probability that this isn’t the first time (Montoya) has done a crime like this,” Schultz said after Montoya was killed. “This is too brutal of a crime to be his first one.”
Blea is incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center awaiting trial on nine counts of criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13 years old and four counts of kidnapping after he was indicted in March 2013, according to court records. He is also awaiting trial in a different case, in which he is charged with criminal sexual penetration and kidnapping. Blea was indicted on similar charges in May 2010. That case was dismissed in July 2013, but charges could be refiled.
Blea’s attorney wasn’t reached Friday evening.
Tixier said the men are on a list of up to 20 people who haven’t been ruled out either. He wouldn’t name anyone else on the list.
“We have literally ruled out hundreds of people,” Tixier said. “The police department has not forgotten about this case.”
Quietly growing up
The hardest thing Dan Valdez ever did was tell his then 12-year-old granddaughter that her mother had been murdered.
“She didn’t believe it for a short period,” Valdez said. “She had her own trauma in her own little space of the world. She would talk about it and cry, and we’d try to support her.”
More than a dozen children, like Valdez’s granddaughter, have had their mothers stolen by a serial killer. They’ve been quietly growing up over the past six years.
One of them is a full-time student at the University of New Mexico, studying to be a pediatrician and on track to graduate with honors, her family says. Another wants to join the Marines. Some are in high school – one was a cheerleader and is second to the top in her class academically.
Some of the children are having a harder time adjusting.
“He doesn’t like to talk about it. He cries. A couple of years ago, he broke down crying because he said he forgot what his mom looked like,” Eleanor Griego said about her grandson, who is now 15.
After police started identifying the women, the families – including groups of children – would meet regularly in the South Valley.
“A lot of lives lost, a lot of hearts broken,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales said that what the families need to fill the void is a place where they can remember their loved ones, a place that binds them together.
A place to remember
Robert Cloven has twice driven from his two-bedroom mobile home in Los Chavez, south of Los Lunas, to see the barren pit his daughter was found in.
Both times, he was hoping to see a memorial park dedicated to the victims. Both times, he saw dirt and tumbleweeds, and trash lining a barbed-wire fence. A sign hangs to greet visitors. “NO TRESPASSING,” it reads.
KB Home, a national real estate company that owns the land, promised in 2009 to donate some of it for a park. The city said it was on board.
Years later, the lot still remains a wide expanse of fenced-off desert, with subdivisions crowding it on three sides.
“It has a nice view. Oh man, it would be nice. I would be up there all the damn time,” Gonzales said. “I’m not going to sit in some damn dirt field all the time.”
KB Home has designed a grassy park with 11 trees in a circle – one for each of the women – and an empty entrance spot in memory of the unborn baby.
Barbara Taylor, director of the Albuquerque’s Parks and Recreation Department, said the city is still negotiating with the developer KB Home.
“KB Home remains committed to donate three acres of land to the City of Albuquerque and it is our hope that this city park will serve as a beautiful addition to the surrounding community,” Craig LeMessurier, a spokesman for the company, said in an emailed statement.
Taylor said the developer will likely build the park and the city will maintain it.
Gonzales said she felt an immediate connection to her sister Doreen Marquez when she was at the burial site.
“When I stepped foot on that land over there on the West Mesa, I knew she was there, right then and there,” she said. “I felt like my sister’s hands came out of the dirt and just held me there.”
‘No conclusion yet’
The last time Dan Valdez saw his daughter Michelle, he asked her to not stay away too long.
“She walked up and put her arms around me and hugged me. I hugged her back and she said, ‘No dad, hug me hard and tight,'” Valdez said. “It seemed as if she knew something was going to happen.”
Nadine Hamby, a former APD spokeswoman, was a point of contact for families as their loved ones were identified as victims.
“Meeting the families, it was horrible, it was very sad,” Hamby said. “We all move on, but these are the things that families don’t forget. There’s no conclusion yet.”
Each anniversary that passes without an arrest is a reminder of the pain, the families say.
“All we can do is keep on going and someday they’ll catch the dang people who did this,” said Robert Cloven, whose daughter Virginia was murdered. “It’s not getting easier, no better, you just learn to live with it a little bit.”
Dan Valdez said regardless of whether the case is solved, there will always be an emptiness in his life.
“There’s always a spot at the Christmas dinner table that’s empty. There’s always the birthdays that you used to celebrate that are no longer celebratable,” Valdez said. “There’s just a missing piece of a puzzle in each of our families.”