Albuquerque Journal Special Report
West Mesa Murders
On Feb. 2, 2009, a woman walking her dog stumbled across a human bone — the first of many in what would become one of the largest crime scenes in American history.
At first, the pace was frantic. There were human remains to identify and a serial killer to catch.
It took investigators a year to identify all 11 women they had unearthed.
They built detailed timelines of the women’s last known whereabouts, interviewed 200 women who were working the streets the same years that the victims were, and compiled suspect timelines.
They executed a slew of search warrants within the investigation’s first year, and focused on a few possible suspects. But none of them have ever been officially accused of the crime.
Police say they continue to follow up on leads to this day.
But seven years in, the case seems to have slowed. It remains unsolved.
In mid-2005, Albuquerque police detective Ida Lopez noticed that women with ties to drugs and prostitution had been vanishing from Albuquerque.
She started a list.
Ten of the missing women — Monica Candelaria, Cinnamon Elks, Veronica Romero, Victoria Chavez, Michelle Valdez, Virginia Cloven, Julie Nieto, Evelyn Salazar, Jamie Barela and Doreen Marquez — were found buried on the mesa in 2009, along with Syllannia Edwards, who hadn’t been reported missing in Albuquerque.
It would take police nearly a year to identify all the remains. As they did so, they dug into the victims’ pasts in the hopes they could find the killer.
Families of the missing women in Albuquerque seemed to already know their daughters, mothers, sisters were buried and began leaving memorials before all the women were even identified.
Their families remember the happier sides of them — many knew each other, had big personalities and were loving mothers.
And while many of them struggled with drugs, their family members never imagined they would turn up dead.
When human remains were first discovered in an empty dirt lot in February 2009, police faced an enormous task. They had to unearth skeleton after skeleton from a mass burial site in a 100-acre barren patch of desert on Albuquerque’s far Southwest Mesa. And they had to do so with the utmost care — any piece of evidence uncovered with the bones could lead them to the killer.
The crime scene, which police called one of the largest in American history, required teams of investigators working around the clock to coordinate the dig.
They used heavy equipment to move massive piles of dirt, and hand-sifted certain areas in search of evidence. They worked at the site for at least two and a half months.
After the dig was over, the city and KB Home, the developer that owns the plot of land where the victims were found, said they would build a commemorative park for the victims. That still hasn’t happened seven years later. Both a city spokeswoman and a KB Home representative say they are still negotiating with each other about the specifics.
In the early days of the investigation, police threw out a number of suggestions for possible suspects in the West Mesa serial murder case.
Investigators wouldn’t give any names, only vague descriptions — someone in prison, a military man, a pimp.
In July 2009, five months after the first bones were found, then police Chief Ray Schultz announced that police had narrowed the suspect pool to five people.
Months later, he said only a “handful” of suspects remained.
But whoever those suspects were, police apparently could never gather enough evidence to charge any of them.
In 2014, KRQE-13 named Joseph Blea and Lorenzo Montoya as two men who haven’t been ruled out. Police confirmed that a year later.
Both men were suspects very early in the investigation — Montoya before any bones were even found.
It remains unclear who other suspects may be. And it’s possible the suspect list may have grown — in 2015, police spokesman Tanner Tixier said the list was as big as 20.
- 02/07/09: Bones Uncovered After Excavation
- 02/10/09: Remains of 3 Found on West Mesa
- 02/11/09: Dead Woman ID’d as Prostitute
- 02/12/09: Police: One Person Likely Buried Bodies
- 02/15/09: More Bones Found on West Mesa
- 02/18/09: Skeleton Find Puts Count at 6
- 02/19/09: Skeleton Completed
- 02/24/09: Recent discovery on West Mesa is woman who was pregnant
- 02/26/09: Second Southwest Mesa Body ID’d
- 02/26/09: Scientist Helps ID the Remains
- 02/27/09: No More Wondering
- 02/28/09: Body Count: 13
- 03/02/09: Lost Women: Don’t These Cases Deserve a Deeper Look?
- 03/05/09: Murder Theories Include Gangs, Pimps, Felons
- 03/05/09: APD Says It Tracked Missing
- 03/12/09: Slaying Victims Linked
- 03/19/09: Bill Gives $25K Tips Reward
- 03/20/09: ‘Sacred ground’
- 03/22/09: Family, Friends Gather To Remember Victims
- 04/04/09: Police ID 2 More Women
- 04/14/09: Crime Story Tugs at the Heart
- 04/15/09: APD Gets Help From Experts
- 04/23/09: Friend: Drugs Destroyed Her
- 05/28/09: Cold Case, Deaths Linked?
- 05/28/09: ‘People Talking’ in Mesa Case
- 06/04/09: West Mesa Victim May Not Be Local
- 06/12/09: OMI Confirms Homicide in Mesa Deaths
- 07/31/09: West Mesa Suspect List Narrows
- 10/17/09: Closing in on a Killer
- 12/13/09: West Mesa Memorial ‘Lived Its Life’
- 01/27/10: Final Mesa Victim Is ID’d
- 08/24/10: Investigation in Missouri
- 01/31/11: Mother Will Keep Searching for Answers
- 02/02/12: West Mesa Murders Case Is Three Years Old Today
- 02/08/13: Search for West Mesa Killer Goes On
- 02/01/15: West Mesa murders: ‘We want to feel less forgotten’
- 06/03/15: 26 years later, man convicted in girl’s rape
- 06/08/15: Joseph Blea gets 36 years for rape of 13-year-old
- 06/11/15: Child rapist pleads no contest to 3 more attacks
- 06/15/15: Is Joseph Blea tied to West Mesa killings
- 02/01/16: Seven years later, one detective remains on West Mesa killings
- 10/05/16: Former APD detective back on the case
- 10/05/16: Police looking for women in old sex tapes made by West Mesa suspect
- 09/21/17: Plans unveiled for West Mesa memorial to 11 slain women
- 02/02/18: Excerpts from Chief Geier’s interview on West Mesa case
- 02/02/18: West Mesa killings left pain, questions that won’t go away
- 06/22/18: Appeals court upholds ‘Mid-School Molester’ case
- 07/03/18: Human remains found near West Mesa burial site
- 07/03/18: Seeking closure: Families of missing women hopeful after new discovery
- 07/06/18: Bones not connected to West Mesa murders
- 08/08/18: West Mesa suspect loses appeal in rape cases
- 02/01/19: ‘In plain sight, and nobody had seen it’
Other stories & resources
Contact APD with information about the West Mesa murders at 1-877-765-8273 or (505) 768-2450.
Produced and reported by
NICOLE PEREZ & ROBERT BROWMAN