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Police ID 2 More Women

By Jeff Proctor
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Police on Thursday identified two more women whose remains had been unearthed on the far Southwest Mesa in the past two months, then announced that the number of skeletons is actually 11 adults — not 12 — and a fetus.
        The reduction of the body count came after experts in the identification of human remains determined that bones found about a month ago near 118th and Dennis Chavez SW actually belonged to one of the skeletons officials had already uncovered. Officials had believed those bones were of a 12th adult.
        At a news conference Friday, police released the names of Monica Candelaria and Veronica Romero.
        They join Victoria Chavez, Gina Michelle Valdez, Cinnamon Elks and Julie Nieto on the list of women identified. Valdez was four months pregnant when she was buried on the mesa.
        Police say all six were in their 20s when they were reported missing around 2004, and all lived lives fraught with prostitution and drug addiction. Chavez, Elks, Valdez and Nieto all knew one another, although it is unclear whether they knew Candelaria or Romero.
        Both Romero and Candelaria have arrest records that include prostitution and drug charges.
        At the news conference, Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz for the first time referred to the women as "victims."
        The chief said the Office of the Medical Investigator has still not determined cause or manner of death in any of the cases.
        Schultz also continued to keep details close to the vest regarding the investigation into who is responsible for the women's deaths. He reiterated that police believe the "same person or persons" buried the women, but said the investigation remains wide open in terms of possible suspects.
        Romero's remains, which were found in March, were the seventh set authorities uncovered. She was born in 1976. Her family reported her missing on the last day she was seen: Feb. 15, 2004.
        Candelaria, who was born in 1981, was the third woman discovered on the mesa in February.
        Candelaria was last seen in the South Valley on May 11, 2003. She was reported missing to APD 13 days later.
        In June of that year, Bernalillo County sheriff's detectives began looking into Candelaria's disappearance as a "missing persons/possible foul play case," Undersheriff Sal Baragiola told the Journal.
        Sheriff's detectives worked the case until the end of October 2003 after receiving information from Candelaria's associates that the rumor was she had been killed and buried on the mesa, Baragiola said. When they had exhausted all their leads, investigators turned it over to cold case detectives.
        He said the sheriff's cold case unit has made progress.
        "We have a lot of information that will be helpful to the task force" that's in charge of investigating the 11 women buried on the mesa, Baragiola said. "We have information about (Candelaria's) associates, who she hung out with. We'll be passing on the cold case file, and I'm sure we'll be one of the lead agencies on this aspect of the larger case."
        Schultz said the priority for investigators right now is to identify the remaining five victims and to continue to work leads in an effort to find out who is responsible for their deaths.
        An investigation started around 2001 when missing persons detectives began to notice a pattern of missing prostitutes. They began to compile a list, which wound up containing the names of all six of the mesa victims who have been identified so far.
        Detectives worked hard to find the women between 2001 and 2006, but leads dried up.
        Then, on Feb. 2, a woman walking her dog on the mesa found what turned out to be a human bone. That discovery sparked what Schultz has called the "largest crime scene in Albuquerque history."
        He described a two-month, labor-intensive process that has taken police to where they are now.
        To date, authorities have moved 40,000 cubic yards of dirt at the 92-acre site. They have excavated from 7 to 15 feet under the current ground level.
        Complicating the dig has been work that property owner KB Home had done there in anticipation of a housing development. The developer's heavy equipment moved a lot of earth and unknowingly broke and shattered many of the bones.
        Reconstructing the skeletons has been difficult because many of the 206 bones that belonged to each person had to be pieced back together. For example: Several leg bones were in as many as four or five pieces, and several of the skulls had been broken into shards.
        "This has been a very tedious process with a lot of small pieces," Schultz said. "We've had to put together a very complex puzzle, and the pieces of the puzzle were, in many cases, broken."
        Moreover, water damage, exposure to air, the weight of dirt that had been moved and the heavy equipment made some of the bones look different. That's why officials initially thought they had a 13th set of remains.
        Officials had initially thought they would wrap up excavation at the site by today, the chief said. But more small bones have been uncovered this week, so the dig will continue at least through Monday.

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