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Saturday, October 17, 2009
Closing in on a Killer
By Jeff Proctor
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
Detectives got excited after receiving several tips about a man who had a makeshift shrine, complete with photographs of the West Mesa murder victims and sticky notes bearing other information about the women in his apartment.
But like a number of once-promising leads in the biggest murder mystery in Albuquerque history, the guy with the shrine fizzled.
So did many of the hundreds of tips that have flooded APD since early February, when police began to uncover the remains of 11 women buried in shallow graves in a patch of desert near 118th and Dennis Chavez SW. Among the tips: a psychic who claimed to have detailed information about the case and a man who had several pieces of clothing that belonged to some of the victims.
Still, police say they've made significant progress in the case the past few months. Investigators have served more than a dozen search warrants, including three more on Monday. All of the warrants have been sealed, and police officials won't discuss what's been found.
"I'm still very excited and optimistic about the case, and I still get weekly briefings," Police Chief Ray Schultz said Wednesday. "And the fact that we're still out doing warrants, and that the district attorney and the judges are agreeing to sign them tells me we're moving in the right direction."
Detectives have narrowed their focus to a "very small handful of suspects," the chief said. One suspect was killed in December 2006 after he strangled a prostitute in his West Side trailer. Another suspect is doing time in a New Mexico prison on a violent rape charge.
Police believe the women, who had all struggled with lifestyles that included substance abuse and prostitution, were strangled. Some of the victims had known each other.
Winnowing the suspect list has been a manpower and time-intensive process, said Cmdr. Mike Geier, a member of the task force charged with finding the most prolific killer in the city's history.
"But this will be a good, extensive court case when it does come together," Geier said. "There's not a rock we haven't turned over. It would be just our luck that the guy on the corner with the cardboard sign has the tip that breaks the case and we don't check it out.
"So we're checking everything out. We spent two or three weeks on the guy with the shrine."
Detectives had received a stream of information about the man with the women's pictures on his wall. When they finally got a search warrant and entered the apartment, police thought they had hit the jackpot.
"It was like something you'd see in one of those movies when the FBI walks into the apartment of a serial killer," Geier said. "There were pictures on the wall of the women and sticky notes with their names and other information."
But after questioning the man, detectives determined he had nothing to do with the killings.
"It turned out he was just doing his own kind of analysis of the case," Geier said.
Not long after putting that dead-end lead to bed, detectives started hearing about a man who had clothing that had belonged to some of the victims. The tips pricked investigators' ears because the women were buried naked on the mesa.
But the man just turned out to have been an acquaintance of some of the victims who had spent time with them between late 2003 and early 2005 — the time period during which police believe they were killed.
And a psychic had been passing what he called "valuable information" to the mother of one of the victims. But it turned out to be vague and unhelpful.
"It was the kind of situation where if you were a family member, it would get your hopes up," Geier said. "But it wasn't anything we could use. Still, we had to check it out."
Numerous self-purported "informants" have approached the task force with offers of information in exchange for large sums of cash up front. And prison inmates have offered information in exchange for leniency or a move to a different pod.
None of the $65,000 reward money being offered has been given out, Geier said. Detectives haven't even paid out smaller amounts of money typically given to informants.
And although police believe they're getting closer to the killer, they still need information from the public. Only seven of the 11 women have been identified.
"We don't want the public to feel that the information they have is insignificant," Geier said. "Pass the tip along and let police do their job."
Anyone with information about the West Mesa murders is asked to call 1-877-SOLV-APD. A $65,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the case being solved.