Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
For decades, Joanne Simmons waited to hear news of her son.
She hired private investigators. She canvassed seedy carnivals in California north of where Stewart Simmons went AWOL from the Navy in the summer of 1982. She searched online coroner records.
Every time the phone rang in her Atlanta-area home and she didn’t get to it fast enough, she worried it had been him calling.
“I would walk in the house and the phone would just have been ringing. I was like, ‘Oh my god, what if that was him?'” she said in an interview Thursday. “I did hold on to some hope that he was alive. I think in my heart I knew he was dead, but I would not allow myself to go there.”
But in February 2014, she had to go there, when she found out her son had been buried in an Albuquerque cemetery in a grave marked only with a number. Detective George Barter of the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office in southern Colorado contacted her and told her about a decades-old cold case he was trying to crack.
The decomposing body of a 39-year-old woman had been found in the San Juan River in New Mexico just south of the Colorado border in September 1982. A month later, a 20-year-old man’s body was found on the Colorado side.
Neither had been identified, but after a tip from an online sleuth, Barter believed his victim might be Simmons’ son. He was right.
“It was the worst pain I have ever felt, but yet a relief in a way,” Simmons said. “I had prayed and prayed that before I died I would know what happened to him. But it was certainly not the way I wanted him to come home. You think you’re prepared, but you’re never really prepared.”
Now she has another type of closure.
Late last week, Barter issued arrest warrants for two suspects in the 33-year-old case. Antoinette Palmer, 58, who also goes by the name Tina Madrid, was arrested in Mesa, Ariz., and booked into the Maricopa County Jail on two counts of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
And Martin Martinez, 70, who still lives in southern Archuleta County near where the bodies were found, was charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit murder.
The bodies were found in the San Juan River in a rural area of Colorado and New Mexico, about a month apart. They were decomposing, and while some locals had seen the two victims, nobody seemed to know who they were.
Two years ago, they were identified as Stewart Simmons, 20, and Margaret Walden, 39. Simmons was shot and Walden was strangled.
After the bodies were found, a jurisdictional issue hampered the investigation. Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office deputies began the investigation, but New Mexico officials later took over, according to the arrest warrant filed for Palmer.
Their autopsies were performed by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator in Albuquerque, and they were later buried in unidentified graves – the man in Albuquerque, the woman in Española.
But from there, the case stalled.
Barter heard about the story and reopened the case in 2009.
“The whole thing was so unjust. I felt like they’d been extremely mistreated, killed and thrown in the river and never identified,” Barter said. “There seemed to be enough in the case file to go forward. The whole thing just seemed so unjust and so unfair, those two kids were in the ground somewhere unidentified.”
Early in his investigation, Barter got a break. He and a New Mexico State Police officer searched an old abandoned bus that belonged to Palmer at the time of the killings and found blood on the carpet, as well as shell casings that matched Simmons’ gunshot wounds.
Palmer told authorities Simmons had been living in her bus for about a month but said she wasn’t involved in the murder. But other people who spoke with authorities said Palmer implicated herself in the two deaths, according to the arrest warrant.
Barter believes there are two possible motives for the deaths: Either they were drug-related, or Palmer was jealous about Simmons’ possible relationship with the female victim.
As Barter struggled to put together evidence in the case, he was also still doggedly trying to identify the victims. That search led him to New Mexico, where they were buried, in the hopes of exhuming them to get better DNA samples.
Barter spent days searching in the cemetery where the woman was buried, with no luck. She was in an unmarked grave, and nobody seemed to remember where exactly in the cemetery she was.
Thinking he would let New Mexico authorities know he was in town, he called the Española office of the New Mexico State Police and reached Sgt. Chris Valdez.
He had contacted possibly the only person who could help him.
Years earlier, Valdez had been digging a grave for his grandmother and another family member in that same cemetery.
“We were digging the hole for the grave, and we had to put two bodies so we had to go 9 or 10 feet,” Valdez said Thursday. “All the sudden, an arm came up.”
He had unintentionally disturbed an unmarked grave.
They continued digging farther away from the grave and marked it with a cross, he said.
He later learned it was the female victim. So when Barter called, he knew exactly what he was talking about.
“I said ‘I know where that’s at.’ It’s a weird coincidence,” he said.
A tip from an amateur internet investigator also helped Barter figure out who the victims were. The investigator gave him the names of Stewart Simmons and Margaret Walden – both of which turned out to be correct.
Last week, Barter decided to take the next step and seek arrest warrants for Palmer and Martinez, both of whom he said had been implicated in the case from the start.
“Pretty much from the beginning when I reopened in the case in 2009, those two were obvious suspects,” he said. “A lot of the physical evidence has been lost and misplaced. But those two people told other people. A lot of people came forward. I didn’t find them; they ratted on themselves by telling people.”
For Joanne Simmons, the news that arrests have been made after so many years was the best she could have hoped for.
“I think my heart stopped beating. Even though I expected it, it was just the most stunning and welcome news,” she said. “Maybe now Stewart can get the justice he deserves. My family have suffered enough for 34 years that it’s worth it to at least try to get a conviction in this case.”