Albuquerque Journal Special Report
West Mesa Murder Victims
Jamie Barela, 15, was last seen with her 23-year-old cousin Evelyn Salazar heading to a park at San Mateo and Gibson SE in April 2004.
Neither woman was ever seen again until their bones turned up in the mass grave site on the West Mesa in 2009.
Jamie was the final skeleton to be identified, almost a year after the first bone was found.
But Jamie’s mom believed investigators would find her daughter’s body long before she was named.
Unlike the other West Mesa victims, Barela had no known prostitution or drug arrests.
- Final Mesa Victim Is ID’d
- Tragedy Brings Juarez, Albuquerque Women Closer
- Obituary for Jamie Yvonne Barela
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Sheriff’s deputies investigating the disappearance of Monica Candelaria in 2003 heard from her friends that she had been killed and buried on the mesa.
It turns out, those friends were right.
When the 21-year-old never showed up, detectives turned it over to the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office cold case unit. The case stayed cold until she was identified as one of the women found on the mesa in 2009.
She was last seen near Atrisco and Central in Southwest Albuquerque. Deputies said she lived a “high-risk lifestyle” and may have had gang ties. She had been convicted of prostitution once, according to court records.
But her obituary highlights a happier side.
“Monica enjoyed laughing, joking, taking care of babies, and spending time with her family,” the obituary reads. “She will be remembered as a loving daughter, mother, granddaughter, niece, cousin and friend who will be truly missed.”
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Victoria Chavez, 26, was the first woman whose bones were identified after they were found on the mesa — before the public learned the women were likely murdered by a serial killer.
“To have them come and knock on my door, I was devastated,” stepfather Ambrose Saiz said at a memorial event in 2009. “I never thought it would end like this. I just had that hope.”
Chavez’s mother reported her missing in March 2005 after she hadn’t seen her in more than a year.
The mother also said in the missing persons report that Chavez was on probation and was a “known drug user and prostitute.” She had five prostitution convictions, according to court records.
- Dead Woman ID’d as Prostitute
- More Bones Found on West Mesa
- Family, Friends Gather To Remember Victims Found Buried in Mesa
- Memorial page for Victoria Ann Grace Chavez
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Virginia Cloven grew up in a small trailer heated by wood-burning stove in Los Chavez.
She was funny, loved doing her makeup and was a favorite at school.
“She was a really humorous girl, she would take everything in stride,” her dad Robert Cloven said in a 2015 interview. “She would try to lie to you, and then come in and tell you the truth anyways two minutes later. The teachers wanted to adopt her.”
But tragedy struck the family when she was in high school.
Her brother was shot and killed in a homicide that would later be ruled self-defense.
Virginia Cloven ran away from home a week later, when she was 17. Another brother ran away too.
“They said they couldn’t stand it anymore,” Robert Cloven said.
At first Virginia Cloven lived with her grandfather in Albuquerque, then moved in with a boyfriend.
He got hit by a car and went into a coma, and soon Virginia Cloven had lost her home and was living on the streets of Albuquerque’s International District.
One year, she called her dad asking what he wanted for his birthday. He asked her to clear up her citations and then they were supposed to meet in Albuquerque.
“We went to go meet her on my birthday after court, she said ‘come to grandpa’s.’ But she wasn’t there,” Robert Cloven said. “After that she just vanished.”
Robert Cloven and his wife searched high and low for their daughter. They taped pictures of her on the cab of their truck and drove through the seedier parts of the city.
They last heard from her in June 2004. She called to say she had a new boyfriend who had just gotten out of prison and that she was probably going to marry him.
“We said we’d like to meet him, but we never heard from her again,” Robert Cloven said in 2009. “After that, everything just went dead.”
Robert Cloven reported his daughter missing four months later, in October 2004. She was 23 at the time.
Though he hadn’t heard from her in years, Robert Cloven said he never expected detectives to show up at this door and tell him his daughter was dead.
“We just couldn’t believe it. We were hoping it was a mistake,” he said. “In the back of our minds we were still hoping she might be out there.”
Now, years later, his daughter’s death still haunts him. He doesn’t celebrate holidays anymore, and sleeps in the living room instead of the bedrooms where his kids would have been.
“When you lose a kid it’s the hardest thing in the world I think,” he said. “I’ve lost other family members … but when it’s your daughter or son, it hurts worse.”
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Syllannia Edwards stands apart from the other West Mesa victims.
She had no known friends or family, and was a runaway from foster care in Lawton, Okla.
Edwards, who was 15, was the only African American victim. She never knew her father, and last saw her mother when she was 5.
Police believe she may have been a “circuit girl,” meaning she was traveling along the I-40 corridor as a prostitute.
Early in the investigation, a tipster told investigators Edwards was seen in Denver in the spring and summer of 2004. The tipster said she had been at a motel on East Colfax Street in Denver.
“They were high-prostitution areas,” then-APD spokeswoman Nadine Hamby said in 2009.
Police believe she may have been travelling in a group.
“We’ve received information that Syllannia was associated with three other females and that she may have gone by the aliases Chocolate or Mimi,” Hamby said.
Early on, investigators hoped Edwards’ background, because it’s different from the other victims, would provide the details needed to crack the case.
Police released photographs of her fingernail, which had a distinct painted design on it, to media outlets in both Albuquerque and Denver in the hopes someone who painted the nail would come forward.
It’s unclear if investigators ever got any credible leads from the fingernail, or from digging into her past.
- West Mesa Victim May Not Be Local
- Eighth West Mesa Murder Victim Identified
- Police Tip: Victim Was in Denver
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When Diana Wilhelm didn’t hear from her daughter on her birthday in August 2004, she knew something was wrong.
But it would take nearly five years for police to confirm what Wilhelm already believed — her daughter Cinnamon Elks was dead.
Elks, who was 32 when she went missing, was the third of the West Mesa victims to be identified after the first bone was found in early 2009. She, like many of the others, had a string of prostitution and solicitation arrests — 19 total, with 14 convictions.
She was friends with at least three of the other victims — Gina Michelle Valdez, Victoria Chavez and Julie Nieto.
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Doreen Marquez loved jewelry and fashionable clothes and had a huge personality, according to her friends and family.
“She always did her hair, she always did her nails, she always looked beautiful,” her friend Fredrica Garcia said. “This girl was gorgeous. She was not the one to say ‘I’m going to put my hair back today, I don’t care how I look.’”
She went to West Mesa High School where she was a cheerleader, and later had two daughters who she was devoted to, throwing them extravagant birthday parties.
But as the girls got older, Marquez’s boyfriend was jailed and she turned to drugs. She spent less and less time with her daughters, leaving them with her sister or other family members.
“I had kicked her out of my house. That was the last time I saw her,” Julie “Bubbles” Gonzales, Marquez’s sister, said in an interview last year. “I just told her, ‘You know, it’s better if you just go. Whenever you feel like you’re not going to use, or you just want somewheres to come and eat, shower, or whatever, my door is open.’ And she never came back.”
Garcia said the last time she saw Marquez, she told her she could help her deal with her addiction. But Marquez refused.
“It’s not like she lived this lifestyle from 18 to 27,” Garcia said. “It wasn’t like that. It’s like the last year of her life she started having problems. She was a really good mom.”
She was around 27 when she disappeared, friends say.
Police reported that she was last seen dropping a child off at Calvary Christian Academy on Lead SE near University in October 2003. But a friend later contradicted that, saying she was last seen in Barelas.
Unlike many of the other women whose bones were found on the West Mesa, Marquez didn’t have any prostitution arrests. But police believe she engaged in it nonetheless.
Now, many years later, her daughters still go down to Roswell to decorate their mom’s grave with butterflies and wind chimes.
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As a child, Julie Nieto was always small for her age.
So small that her mom said Julie often sewed or altered her own clothes to make them fit.
She grew up in Albuquerque’s South Valley and Los Lunas, and loved chile peppers and jump rope.
She later went to Job Corps, which teaches under-priveleged young people different professions.
Her mom, Eleanor Griego, said Nieto started doing drugs when she was around 19. She tried to get her treatment to no avail.
Griego says she last saw Nieto, then 23, in August 2004 at Griego’s dad’s house. She left behind a young son, who Griego said she had doted over.
“She was a great mother, she wouldn’t let that boy go for nothing,” she said. “He cried and cried for her.”
Two years after Nieto went missing, her sister Valerie Nieto was found dead in a motel on Central Avenue after overdosing.
“She couldn’t handle it. She was depressed all the time, crying all the time,” Griego said. “That was the only sister she ever had.”
Griego found out Nieto was one of the girls found on the mesa soon after.
“I collapsed crying,” Griego said. “I was upset … I had just buried one daughter and then they found the other one.”
Now Griego is raising her grandsons — Julie and Valerie Nieto’s sons.
Nieto was charged with prostitution and convicted four times, according to court records.
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Veronica Romero was 27 when she was reported missing by her family on Valentine’s Day 2004.
Her family laid her to rest in July 2009 after her body was one of the 11 unearthed on Albuquerque’s West Mesa earlier that year.
“We’re putting her to rest finally, but considering what’s been done, and now we’re finding out more of what’s happened to her, and it’s sad,” family member Desiree Gonzales told KOB-TV at the time. “She was hurt real bad.”
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Evelyn Salazar was reported missing on April 3, 2004, by her family. She was 23 when she disappeared.
She was the 10th victim to be identified, and her 15-year-old cousin Jamie Barela was the final one to be identified.
The two were last seen together at a family gathering and then went to a park at San Mateo and Gibson.
Salazar liked camping and outdoor activities, was a good cook and taught her daughter how to roller skate, according to her obituary.
She had been convicted of prostitution once, according to court records.
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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 in a 2015 interview. “It seemed as if she knew something was going to happen.”
Michelle Valdez had a daughter who she cared for deeply, and had a big heart, Dan Valdez said.
“Michelle was quite a gal, she would give you the shirt off of your back if you needed it,” he said. “She was good-hearted, kind, and didn’t deserve what she got.”
He said he couldn’t remember exactly when she got involved with drugs.
But she started disappearing for days, sometimes a week at a time. Later it turned to months.
When she did show up, he would give her small sums of money — even though he knew she would use it on drugs — in the hopes that she would come back again.
Eventually, she stopped altogether. Dan Valdez reported her missing in February 2005, when she was 22.
Her bones were the second set to be identified in late-February 2009 after investigators started digging for bodies. They also discovered the remains of Michelle Valdez’s 4-month-old unborn baby.
Court records show Michelle Valdez had been convicted of prostitution once.
Karen Jackson, Michelle Valdez’s mom, said her daughter wasn’t defined by drug addiction.
“She was a very fun-loving girl, she always had a smile on her face, and she would just brighten up a room with her bubbly personality,” Jackson told the Journal soon after she was identified as one of the women found on the mesa. “Everybody has faults, and hers was drugs. But she was still a human being. She was a good big sister; she always looked out for her sisters. And she was a mom who cared about her kids’ accomplishments.”
Michelle had two younger sisters, a son and a daughter, Jackson said.
Michelle had dreamed of one day being a singer, her mother said, or maybe a lawyer like her aunt.
“Drug addiction certainly wasn’t the lifestyle she wanted,” Jackson said. “She wanted help, but she didn’t have money or insurance, so it was very hard for her to get it.”
As the years wore on and the case remained unsolved, Dan Valdez became a de facto spokesman for the group of families.
But he fell ill from cancer and liver problems in 2014, and died only three months after the Journal interviewed him in late January 2015.
At the time, he said he was still patiently waiting for police to catch her killer.
“God I wish we had some answers,” he said. “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.”
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Produced, reported and maintained by Journal staff members
ROBERT BROWMAN & NICOLE PEREZ
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