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Investigation in Missouri

By Rozanna M. Martinez
Journal Staff Writer
          The more than yearlong investigation into Albuquerque's infamous West Mesa burial ground moved to Missouri this week when APD officers and FBI agents searched at least two homes and a business in Joplin.
        Acting on a lead in the slayings of 11 women and a fetus, whose bodies were discovered on the Southwest Mesa last year, police served search warrants on the Erwin Photo Studio and at least two residential properties owned by Ron Erwin in the Joplin area, according to The Joplin Globe.
        Erwin declined comment in a telephone interview from Fox Farm Whole Food Inc., one of the businesses he owns.
        Albuquerque police spokeswoman Nadine Hamby said the warrants had been sealed and would not comment beyond saying that police were following up leads in the case.
        No one has been arrested in the case.
        Police believe "the same person or persons" buried the women in shallow graves near 118th and Dennis Chavez SW, between the years 2000 and 2005. The investigation began Feb. 2, 2009, when a woman walking her dog came across what turned out to be a human hip bone. Investigators unearthed the remains of 11 women and a fetus.
        Hamby said the department had been hoping to wrap up the case earlier this year but that police have to exhaust all leads in the case, including the one in Joplin. In the past, Police Chief Ray Schultz said investigators had narrowed the suspect list to a small handful.
        Erwin's mother Bulah Erwin told the Journal that police questioned her at her home in Joplin Tuesday.
        "I can't imagine, I'm just absolutely terribly upset," Bulah Erwin said. "I have no idea what it is or what it's all about."
        She said police impounded her son's truck and his van and that the situation had her "shaking all over."
        Erwin said her son has not been in Albuquerque for many years but that in the past he had come to take photos of the State Fair and its parade. She said he particularly enjoyed taking pictures of the bands because he was in one at one time.
        "He enjoyed your fair down there," she said. "He takes pictures of all kinds of things."
        Brad Gadberry, an acquaintance of Erwin and staff member of the Central Christian Center that sits across an alley from the photography studio, said he saw police go in and out of the studio on Tuesday, but did not see authorities remove anything.
        "It's pretty shocking that this would lead (police) back to here," Gadberry said. "For his sake, I just hope it's just a misunderstanding."
        He said Erwin mainly used the studio, which he has owned for about 10 to 15 years, as a warehouse and for photo processing. He said it was unoccupied most of the time.
        "It's usually pretty quiet over here," Gadberry said.
        Gadberry said he has known Erwin for several years and once owned a photo studio next door to Erwin's.
        "He marched to the beat of a different drummer, but he was nice and polite," he said.
        Gadberry also described Erwin as someone who does not "fit the mold."
        Gadberry said he and Erwin mostly discussed photography and the most he knew of Erwin's personal life was that he is single.
        "He does portrait work and he has traveled quite a bit," Gadberry said of Erwin. "He seemed to enjoy traveling to Asia, Cambodia, Thailand and India."
        Following the discovery of the bodies in 2009, three branches of a 40-member 118th Street Task Force began investigating the case: one that processed the 100-acre site where the remains were found, one to handle logistics and coordinate information police have on the victims and cases, and a third to try to find out who is responsible.
        Members of that task force have traveled to Arizona and Texas.
        The last of the 11 victims was identified in late January. Jamie Barela was 15 when she was reported missing in April 2004. She was last seen at a family gathering at an Albuquerque park with her 23-year-old cousin, Evelyn Salazar, who also had been identified as one of the victims.
        A reward of $100,000 has been offered for information leading to an arrest of the serial killer.

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