No one has ever been charged in the murders of 11 women whose bodies were buried on Albuquerque’s West Mesa – one of the nation’s worst unsolved serial killing cases.
But an affidavit obtained by the Journal reveals that investigators believed a plant tag from a California nursery found at one of the burial sites connected the victim to a rapist sentenced this week.
The affidavit filed in 2010 in support of a search warrant seeking DNA from Joseph R. Blea, 58, says the identification tag for 5-gallon spearmint juniper was recovered from the grave of a victim found 8 feet below the surface “in an area where Blea was known to dump debris from his landscape business.
“It is highly unlikely (the tag) blew into the pile of dirt after the grave #2 had been dug up,” according to the affidavit filed by APD detectives.
According to the affidavit, APD detectives found 20 prostitutes who identified Blea – who has never been charged in the murders but was still under investigation in connection with them, according to police earlier this year – as someone who frequented prostitutes in the East Central corridor.
“We are not confirming any suspects or leads at this point in the investigation. We do have strong leads, continue to be dedicated to solving this case and continually investigate further tips,” APD spokeswoman Celina Espinoza said Wednesday.
She added that detectives on the case had obtained warrants to get DNA swabs on “multiple persons of interest.”
Further, one of his ex-wives said Blea “often speaks about his hatred for prostitutes, calling them dirty whores and sluts, sometimes calling them by name.”
The search warrant affidavit says Blea was known to frequent prostitutes even while he was married, and to dump landscaping debris on the West Mesa late at night to avoid landfill fees and to bring home women’s clothing and jewelry. He entered guilty pleas in the 1980s to burglaries in which stolen items including women’s panties.
After finding the plant tag, detectives turned to the Vacaville, Calif., wholesale nursery that supplied retail outlets in the Albuquerque area as far back as the early 2000s, and one retail outlet identified Blea as a regular customer.
APD executed a search warrant in June 2009 at Blea’s home on Shadyside SW “in reference to the homicides of the victims buried in the area of 118th St and Dennis Chavez SW,” seizing handwritten notes and a register of purchases from various nurseries in 2003, 2004 and 2005, the affidavit says.
A former cellmate of Blea’s also said he had an abiding interest in the so-called West Mesa murders, an ongoing investigation prompted by the discovery of 11 bodies and a fetus in 2009 of women who had disappeared from 2003 to 2006.
Both of Blea’s former wives told detectives that Blea would leave late at night to illegally dump waste from his business, Landmarks Unlimited Tree Trimming, which he had operated since the 1980s.
Both also said he was physically abusive.
One of the prostitutes who identified Blea also identified the interior of his home and said that after their encounter he “tried to purchase her panties.”
In a recorded conversation from the jail, Blea’s then-wife said she hadn’t done laundry in so long that she was “reduced to going into your thong panty drawer.” She asked if she could wear his ring with a strip of gold triangles, and he responded that it wasn’t his ring and that her daughter must have shoplifted it. Blea’s wife said it looked old and definitely wasn’t shoplifted.
The wife told an employee of the landscape business, which she was operating after Blea’s arrest, that she had found women’s jewelry in the house that did not belong to her or her daughter.
Blea also pressed his wife in a recorded conversation about finding out the statute of limitations on certain crimes. When she told him that the lawyer had advised there is no statute of limitations on murder, Blea responded, “Not now there isn’t, but we’re not talking about now are we!”
Besides the 1988 rape of a 13-year-old girl, the affidavit says APD was advised in early 2009 of a database DNA match between Blea and a prostitute murdered in 1985, Jennifer Lynn Shirm. Another man, Alex Eugene Murray, initially was charged with Shirm’s murder, but prosecutors dropped murder charges in 2006 in part because DNA taken from Shirm didn’t match Murray.
Police investigated a man in Missouri in connection with the murder of the prostitutes, but no charges were ever filed.
No charges have been filed in Shirm’s murder.
This week, 2nd Judicial District Judge Judith Nakamura sentenced Blea to 36 years – two mandatory terms of 18 years, to be served consecutive to one another – for the 1988 rape of the 13-year-old girl. The affidavit says Blea’s DNA was present in the rape kit evidence taken from the girl at the time, and only tested years later.
Blea was convicted last week at a trial during which the evidence was agreed to by both sides. Defense attorneys said their client was eager to be able to appeal on multiple grounds, including illegally obtained DNA, and the only means to accomplish that were a conditional plea or a conviction at trial.
This story was edited after original publication.