Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Seven years ago Tuesday, police began throwing everything they had at the biggest crime the city had ever seen – the murders of 11 women found buried on the city’s West Mesa.
The pace was frantic. There were human remains to identify and a serial killer to catch.
But as years have passed, answers have been few and far between, and there have been no arrests.
This year, police said only one detective remains full-time on what was once the 40-member 118th Street Task Force.
Det. Mark Manary’s assignment: Find out who murdered 11 women and an unborn child.
Eleanor Griego, the mother of victim Julie Nieto, said she is worried that nothing is happening and the killer won’t be caught.
“At this point, I’m losing hope on them finding anybody,” she said.
In recent weeks, Manary gave some details about what he’s been up to.
He said he has investigated 40 tips that came into the West Mesa hotline in 2015 and done interviews.
“About 200 women with similar backgrounds to the victims have been interviewed” so far in the investigation, he said.
The women interviewed were likely working the streets or involved in drugs, as many of the victims shared that lifestyle.
Manary said investigators dug into the victims’ pasts to create detailed timelines for the years when they disappeared – 2003 and 2004. They have also done the same for potential suspects.
“Many persons of interest have been eliminated by means of that timeline,” Manary said.
But he is tight-lipped about who remains on the list – and he won’t call anyone a person of interest.
Last year, police confirmed that two men, Joseph Blea and Lorenzo Montoya, were still on that list.
A Journal review of scores of old reports and court records, some of which were recently released, add new details to what’s already been reported about why police had them on the list.
Suspected early on
It was just a week after finding the first bones that police began to home in on Joseph Blea, who is in prison for other crimes, as a potential suspect.
April Gillen, Blea’s former wife, contacted police seven days after the discovery of a bone on the mesa and said she thought police should look into him.
They already knew a lot about him.
Officers had run across him nearly 140 times between 1990 and 2009. Some of those encounters were along the East Central corridor, a seedy stretch known for prostitution and drugs that many of the victims reportedly frequented, according to a search warrant affidavit unsealed last year.
In one police report, six years before the West Mesa victims disappeared, a woman who had been walking on Central Avenue said Blea called her over to his car and exposed himself. Police found rope and electrical tape on his front seat.
In the weeks after the victims’ remains were found, detectives with APD’s Repeat Offender Project tailed Blea for four days as he appeared to stalk prostitutes on the stroll.
“On two separate occasions Mr. Blea drove Central Ave from the west part of Albuquerque to the east part of Albuquerque,” an officer wrote in the warrant. “He slowed and circled the block in areas where prostitutes were working. He did not approach any prostitutes but appeared to be closely watching them.”
When detectives interviewed a prostitute who knew him, she said he had taken her to his house and tried to tie her up, but she didn’t let him.
About eight months after the West Mesa murder investigation began, detectives searched Blea’s home and collected women’s jewelry and underwear.
His wife, Cheryl Blea, told police she had on occasion found jewelry that didn’t belong to her or her daughter in their home. And she said her daughter had found women’s underwear hidden in their shed.
In a 2015 interview with the Journal, Robert Cloven, the father of victim Virginia Cloven, said some families had noticed the women’s jewelry was missing.
Manary wouldn’t say if the jewelry or underwear found at Blea’s house matched any of the victims’ DNA.
“Due to this being an ongoing criminal investigation, this question cannot be answered at this time,” he said in an email.
Blea reportedly had a fascination with the West Mesa case.
When detectives interviewed Monroe Elderts, Blea’s former cellmate, Elderts said Blea told him he knew some of the victims and had paid them for sex acts.
“Mr. Blea spoke poorly about other identified victims, calling them trashy,” police said Elderts told them.
Blea told Elderts he hit one of the victims when she tried to take his money.
Detectives’ investigation into Blea also led them to other alleged crimes – a young woman he knew said Blea repeatedly raped her when she was 14, including once with a screwdriver. Charges in that case were later dropped.
Last year, Blea was sentenced to 90 years in prison for sexual assaults on four victims in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
He is appealing those convictions.
His former attorney, John McCall, said police investigated Blea in connection with the West Mesa murders, but he said Blea says he had nothing to do with them.
“We dealt with issues relating to all of this,” McCall said last week. “But it doesn’t seem like they really had any conclusive evidence regarding Joseph Blea. He’s denying involvement in West Mesa consistently.”
Blea’s appellate public defender, Nina Lalevic, said she was just assigned the case and hadn’t reviewed it or spoken with Blea yet. She said she didn’t know that police had investigated him in connection with the West Mesa murders.
Killed in the act?
When Lorenzo Montoya was killed in 2006, the bodies of the West Mesa victims had not yet been found. Police Chief Ray Schultz said at the time that police had been looking into him in connection to prostitutes who had vanished from the city.
That’s likely because, like Blea, Montoya cruised the East Central corridor and was known to be violent.
His first prostitution-related arrest was in 1998 when he picked up an undercover detective posing as a prostitute. He offered her $40.
She took him to a motel room near Washington and Central, where officers arrested him.
That incident apparently didn’t deter him.
In 1999, vice detectives watched him pick up a prostitute near Central and San Mateo and followed him to a dark dead-end road near the airport. Police believe they caught him in the act as he was trying to rape and strangle her.
Montoya had apparently never planned to pay her – he had only $2 in his wallet.
He was arrested, but the case was later dismissed.
About five years later, he was still at it. Detectives watched him pick up a prostitute on Central Avenue and arrested him. The woman told officers he paid her $15.
By that time, Montoya already had a history of violence.
According to a domestic violence form his girlfriend filled out after an alleged assault, Montoya repeatedly beat her.
The woman said he had also done “gross things to me” but didn’t detail what they were in the document.
She wrote that Montoya threatened “to kill me and bury me in lime.”
That threat may shed light on Montoya’s last crime.
In December 2006, he invited a woman who police described as a “freelance dancer” to his trailer, then raped and killed her, according to a search warrant affidavit.
“She was bound by the ankles, knees and wrists, with duct tape and cord,” a detective wrote in the warrant. Deputies believe she was strangled.
When the woman’s boyfriend came to check on her, he shot and killed Montoya.
The woman’s body was found next to Montoya’s SUV partially wrapped in a blanket. Montoya had a flashlight in his hand.
The decomposed remains of the West Mesa victims were found about two years later. Investigators have said they believe they were strangled.
‘We’ll get our justice’
Although Manary admits that cases get colder as time goes on, he said the passage of time can sometimes help an investigation.
“The longer a case goes, the harder it is to collect certain evidence that is time sensitive,” he said. “But at the same time a witness that may have been too scared to talk at the time of the incident because of their personal situation may be more willing to talk at a later date.”
While they wait for answers, the families have looked for closure elsewhere.
The city and KB Home, the developer that owns the land where the remains were found, promised to build a memorial park for the victims seven years ago.
There is still no sign of it.
In the absence of the park, family members are left to memorialize their loved ones on their own.
Every year, Griego takes balloons to the still empty pit where her daughter Julie Nieto’s bones were found.
Last year, just as she was setting her memorial in the vacant lot, she had a heart attack. She managed to drive herself to her doctor’s office, where an ambulance took her to the hospital. She survived and underwent heart surgery.
The episode was a stark reminder that closure may be elusive for the aging parents.
A few months after Griego’s heart attack, Dan Valdez, who was often the de facto spokesman for the victims’ families, died of cancer, not long after the Journal interviewed him.
Valdez had spoken about the possibility of dying without knowing who killed his pregnant daughter Michelle.
“We don’t have any answers. God, I wish we had some answers,” he said at the time. “We all meet our maker in the end anyway. We’ll get our justice. Maybe not here on Earth. But we’ll get our justice.”