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APD Gets Help From Experts

By Jeff Proctor
Journal Staff Writer
      Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
    The discovery of skeletons on the far Southwest Mesa has drawn the attention of the nation's foremost experts in identifying human remains.
    The FBI, the state Office of the Medical Investigator, the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department and archaeologists and anthropologists from the University of New Mexico all have pitched in as authorities have uncovered the skeletons of 11 women and a fetus in the dirt near 118th and Dennis Chavez SW.
    During the past month or so the Albuquerque Police Department has also received assistance from the Center for Human Identification, which is housed at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. The center previously has worked on high-profile cases, including the mysterious disappearances of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
    Now, its scientists are making trips to Albuquerque and also receiving boxes of bones from the mesa case at their facility in Denton as they try to identify the remaining unidentified victims.
    APD was the beneficiary of a local connection with the center.
    New Mexico Appeals Court Judge Roderick Kennedy just happens to sit on the center's board of directors and has a long-standing friendship with its top official, who has a place in Santa Fe.
    About three years ago, the local Office of the Medical Investigator lost its forensic anthropologist and never filled the position. Kennedy read in news articles about the mesa case that UNM students were doing much of the excavating at the site.
    So he contacted local officials and offered to hook them up with the center.
    "I've been doing this forensic stuff for a long time and have gotten to know some folks," the judge said. "I'm happy to help out in any way I can."
    "And the whole idea of the (center) is science in the ser vice of justice in the abstract. The (center) doesn't have a stake on either side of the criminal justice system, which is how science is supposed to be. They simply do the analysis and provide the results."
    The analysis done at the center, Kennedy said, is second to none worldwide.
    Its scientists have access to the best in DNA testing equipment and can cross reference samples with "pretty much every major DNA database there is."
    And testing DNA is what authorities will have to rely on as they try to identify the remaining five women who were buried on the mesa. Six have been identified so far, and at least four of those identifications were done using dental and other medical records.
    At least three sets of the remains uncovered on the mesa have been sent to Denton for processing.
    "The samples are sent to North Texas in numbered boxes," Kennedy said. "They are tested, and the results go down on paper. Those (genetic) profiles are then compared against the databases, and if it comes back with a hit, great. That's the joy of objective science — there's no bias, there's no pressure on the result. It's blind testing, and if there is a result, that will be compared to the names APD has."
    Those names are on a list of women with histories of addiction and prostitution who were reported missing in Albuquerque between 2001 and 2005. The six women who have been identified so far have all been on that list.
    They are Victoria Chavez, Gina Michelle Valdez, Julie Nieto, Cinnamon Elks, Veronica Romero and Monica Candelaria.
    The center's charter, according to Kennedy, says it works for free in cases requested by government entities in Oklahoma and Texas.
    "They do it for the science," he said.
    In the mesa case, APD Chief Ray Schultz said the FBI is covering expenses incurred by the center.
    As the center's scientists work to identify the other five victims, a 40-member task force of detectives is trying to piece together who killed the women and buried them on the mesa, according to Schultz.
    Police believe the "same person or persons" is responsible. But they are keeping most of the details of that part of the investigation secret.

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