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DNA could be key to Santa Fe cold cases

Teal Pittington’s body was found off Old Las Vegas Highway about a month after she went missing. She had been strangled.

Teal Pittington’s body was found off Old Las Vegas Highway about a month after she went missing. She had been strangled.

SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe police detective Tony Trujillo thumbs through a black three-ring binder filled with pages of information about unresolved Santa Fe murder cases dating back decades.

“Marie Vicki Griego. She was found in a vacant field behind where the Taco Bell is now on Cerrillos Road. She’d been strangled,” he said, flipping ahead to another section of the binder.

“Tamara Britton. Her remains have not been found yet,” he said, flipping ahead again.

“Teal Pittington. Her remains were found off Old Las Vegas Highway. Her bra was found around her neck. What’s interesting about that one is she was a roommate of Tamara’s at one time.”

Most of the cold cases victims are women, but not all of them.

Earlier this week, the Santa Fe Police Department sent out a media release saying it was seeking the public’s help with the 1987 murder of Patricio Pacheco, who was bludgeoned to death with a carpenter’s claw hammer at his apartment on Agua Fria Street.

SFPD issued the release on Sunday, believed to be the 29th anniversary of Pacheco’s death.

Detectives Tony Trujillo, shown here, and Jimmie Montoya haven’t given up on several cold cases, some of which date back decades. (T.S. Last/Albuquerque Journal)

Detectives Tony Trujillo, shown here, and Jimmie Montoya haven’t given up on several cold cases, some of which date back decades. (T.S. Last/Albuquerque Journal)

“We’re trying to get the word out,” said Trujillo, who is working the cold cases with Detective Jimmie Montoya. “We believe there’s still somebody out there who has information. Through the physical evidence we have and people coming forward with information, whether it’s something about Mr. Pacheco or the people he associated with, we can find out who his killer was.”

Key to the effort are the advances that have been made in forensic DNA analysis since many of these murders occurred.

“It’s all about DNA,” Trujillo said. “Back then, they didn’t think about handling evidence with DNA in mind.”

It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that DNA profiling became practice.

At the time of the Pacheco murder, ABO blood typing collected from saliva was common. That method, however, serves only to narrow the list of possible suspects and is not nearly as precise as DNA matching, which renders a profile as unique as a fingerprint.

Trujillo said some persons of interest in the Pacheco case submitted saliva samples back then and some hair samples were taken. The hair was used to try to match hair found at the crime scene back then. Now, DNA profiles can be extracted from hair.

And DNA has since been lifted from the murder weapon, a hammer found on the floor of the apartment. “Mr. Pacheco’s DNA was found on the working end of the hammer and unknown DNA was found on the handle,” the detective said. “There is a profile there. We’re not saying it’s the suspect’s, but it is something to work with.”

Trujillo won’t name any suspects in this or other cases.

“We don’t want to identify any of them. After all these years, they may think they have gotten away with it,” he said.

The same holds true for rapists.

Earlier this year, New Mexico lawmakers and the governor approved additional funding to help clear a backlog of more than 5,400 so-called rape kits – which may include specimens containing DNA samples – dating back to the 1980s.

About 350 of those rape kits are from Santa Fe victims, Trujillo said.

The likely perpetrator could be identified by comparing DNA samples with those already entered into a national database.

Patricio Pacheco was found bludgeoned in his apartment on Agua Fria Street 29 years ago.

Patricio Pacheco was found bludgeoned in his apartment on Agua Fria Street 29 years ago.

Pacheco likely knew killer

Newspaper articles in the days following the murder describe Pacheco as a quiet man who kept to himself. He especially enjoyed taking his nieces and nephews out to eat or for ice cream.

“Everybody liked him. He was really a likeable guy,” his sister-in-law, Theresa Pacheco, told the Journal at the time.

Known as “Bito,” Pacheco was 40 when he was killed. He worked at the family-owned Owl Liquor Store much of the time, but labored at other jobs here and there.

He’d also check in with his mother on a daily basis. He watered the lawn of her home on Kathryn Place on Thursday night. When he didn’t show up Friday or Saturday, his mother grew concerned and asked one of her other children to check on him.

They found the door to Pacheco’s apartment slightly open and Pacheco slumped on the couch, barefoot, in front of the television set.

“We believe he knew his assailant and that it was someone he trusted. The scene dictates that,” Trujillo said.

Empty beer cans were found all over Patricio Pacheco’s apartment. (Courtesy of Santa Fe Police)

Empty beer cans were found all over Patricio Pacheco’s apartment. (Courtesy of Santa Fe Police)

It looked like Pacheco had spent a relaxing evening at home hanging out with a friend or two. There was a six-pack of empty Budweisers on the kitchen counter, more cans on the dining room table and a few at his feet.

“Chances are they got pretty intoxicated,” the detective said.

Accessing the scene, Trujillo said Pacheco may not have seen it coming.

“He apparently was watching TV. He may have dozed off and someone came up from behind,” Trujillo speculated.

The murder weapon in the 1987 Patricio Pacheco case, a claw hammer, was found in Pacheco’s apartment. (Courtesy of Santa Fe Police)

The murder weapon in the 1987 Patricio Pacheco case, a claw hammer, was found in Pacheco’s apartment. (Courtesy of Santa Fe Police)

The hammer used to strike Pacheco in the head was found on the floor of the apartment.

While the crime scene says a lot and there’s physical evidence, “to be honest, we don’t know a motive,” Trujillo said. Pacheco’s wallet wasn’t taken and it doesn’t appear anything else was missing. There was a vague suggestion that Pacheco might have had a safe in the house, but that couldn’t be substantiated.

Though it’s not mentioned in the newspaper articles, Trujillo said Pacheco was gay.

Could that have been a motive? Could it have been a hate crime?

“Could be,” he said.

Gone, but not forgotten

While Trujillo believes the cold cases in his binder are solvable, not all of them can be prosecuted.

New Mexico doesn’t have a statute of limitations in first-degree murder cases, but it hasn’t always been that way.

The statute of limitations used to be 15 years but, when the law changed, it made any murder committed after July 1, 1982, free from limitations. But murders committed before that date can no longer be prosecuted.

That means Vicki Marie Griego’s killer may have already gotten away with murder. She was killed four years before the law went into effect.

But Trujillo points out that knowing the answer to the question of “Who killed my loved one?” could at least provide some sense of closure or resolve for the victims’ families.

It may be that some of the killers have already been caught or are dead.

Trujillo suspects that David Bruce Morton, now serving life sentences for killing two Santa Fe women – Janet Benoit in 1983 and Teri Lynn Mulvaney in 1984 – may have been a serial killer.

“I suspect him in about four others,” he said, Pittington’s death being one of them. “Unfortunately, we never got DNA from the victims.”

In 1988, the Journal ran a story under the headline “Unsolved Murders Stir Serial Killer Theories.”

Susan LaPorte came to Santa Fe to visit a friend. She was raped and killed by an unknown assailant in December 1985.

Susan LaPorte came to Santa Fe to visit a friend. She was raped and killed by an unknown assailant in December 1985.

Benoit, Mulvaney and three other women in Trujillo’s binder – Pittington, Griego and Susan LaPorte – are mentioned as possible victims of a repeat murderer.

A sidebar to the article speculates that Kenneth Ray Luna, who hanged himself in a Sandoval County jail in 1986, may have killed multiple women in Utah and New Mexico.

He confessed to killing two women in New Mexico and was identified by a Utah woman as the man who beat and raped her and left her for dead.

But Trujillo said a serial killer couldn’t have committed all the murders in the cold cases binder. And lacking DNA evidence in some of the cases, he and Montoya are doing what they can to solve them. They’ve laid a fresh set of eyes on the case files, consulted with former SFPD detectives who handled the cases to try to gain insight and went back to talk to people who were interviewed during the initial investigation.

But he admits they need more help.

“We don’t have a homicide division. We all have a regular case load and, when we get an opportunity, we come back and open the files,” he said. “These are cases we never threw into a box and forgot about.”


Do you have any information?

The Santa Fe Police Department is seeking help from the public to help crack several unsolved murder cases.

In addition to the case involving the 1987 killing of Patricio Pacheco, police are seeking information in the following cases:

  • Vickie Griego, 25, was raped, beaten and strangled with her own belt after leaving a party around midnight on July 8, 1978. Her nude body was discovered five days later near her scattered clothing in a field off Calle Cielo.
  • Tamara Britton, 24 when she was reported missing on Aug. 8, 1984. She was a sales person at West Coast Sound, located on Cerrillos at the time of her disappearance, and simply disappeared. Interestingly, she was a former roommate of Teal Pittington, who went missing a week later.
  • Teal Pittington, 18, was last seen alive on Aug. 15, 1984 in the parking lot of a Cerrillos Road variety store. Her remains were discovered a month later in a culvert about a mile south of the New Mexico Girls Ranch on U.S. 285 south of Lamy. Investigators say she was strangled with her own bra.
  • Susan LaPorte, 25, of Boston, was visiting a friend in Santa Fe when she was strangled Dec. 4, 1985. She had borrowed her friend’s car to go find a quiet place in which to read. A jogger found her body on a dirt road near what is now The Lodge across from the Santa Fe National Cemetery.
  • Diedra Young, 25, was a paralegal and part-time ski instructor who was found dead inside a home on Galisteo that had been deliberately set on fire on Jan. 8, 1998.
  • Annie Tapia, 72, was found dead inside Rockin’ TP Lounge, a Cerrillos Road bar she owned, in March 1995. She had been beaten to death with a baseball bat.
  • Larry Roybal, 74, was found dead in his Don Diego Avenue home by a family member June 15, 2014.

“The more information we have from people who saw Mr. Roybal or any suspicious activity in the area could provide the piece of the puzzle we need,” a police spokeswoman said two days after the crime. “No matter how many pieces of the puzzle we already have, we need those pieces to fit together in order to make an arrest.”

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