Saturday, February 28, 2009
BODY COUNT: 13
By Jeff Proctor
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
Thirteen and counting.
An observant crime scene investigator noticed some human hair as authorities continued to excavate a patch of the far Southwest Mesa on Friday morning, leading to the discovery of yet another skeleton.
The body count rose to 13 after Friday's discovery at the 100-acre site and an announcement late Thursday from the Office of the Medical Investigator that enough bones are present in an ever-growing collection to identify still another individual.
Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz said the bones found Friday are probably those of a female, and detectives have said they believe the rest of the remains are those of women.
Schultz maintains that investigators believe "the same person or persons" put the bones in the partly developed patch of mesa near 118th and Dennis Chavez SW, approximately between the years 2000 and 2005. Manner of death is still unclear in all of the cases, although Schultz said none of the remains has shown any obvious signs of trauma.
On Friday, the chief sought to put Albuquerque residents' minds at ease, saying detectives don't believe whoever is responsible for the deaths is still killing. He said the "best investigative team in New Mexico history" is looking into numerous leads.
"The remains are all old; they've been there a number of years," he said. "Had we been finding fresh bodies, I'd be much more concerned. Everybody can be reassured that there's not an active serial killer in Albuquerque actively killing and preying on people."
Police have not identified any suspects in the deaths but have said they are looking into two cases in particular: one involving a prostitute who was slain in late 2006 in a southwest Albuquerque trailer a few miles from where the remains have been found. The suspected killer was fatally shot as he was moving the woman's body. They are also looking into the case of a well-known pimp who died of natural causes in January and who had pictures of missing prostitutes in his home.
"We don't have enough evidence to allow us to come to a conclusion" that the deaths are the work of a serial killer, Schultz said. "We are also talking with other jurisdictions — in at least three other states — to look into similar cases. The person responsible (for the bodies on the mesa) might've moved, relocated, gotten scared."
Two women have been identified so far, Victoria Chavez and Gina Michelle Valdez.
Both were in their 20s when they were reported missing in late 2004 and early 2005, and both had struggled with a lifestyle that included drug addiction and prostitution. Valdez was about four months pregnant with what would have been her third child, and the remains of a fetus were found beside her.
During the past several years, detectives have compiled a list of 24 women who were either confirmed as or suspected of being prostitutes and who had been reported missing since the mid- to late 1990s, the chief said. Chavez's and Valdez's names were on the list.
Schultz said missing persons detectives had worked hard to track the women down.
"We don't believe anyone is a throwaway person," the chief said. "We had detectives at the New Mexico State Fair several years ago with missing-persons posters. There was work done on these cases (going back as far as 2003) and that has helped us in our investigation so far."
The list aided law enforcement in identifying the two women and gave them a head start in the criminal investigation, he said.
Also Friday, the chief announced that a 40-member task force with the assignment of "bringing the person or persons responsible to justice" will move into an office in Albuquerque next week.
The 118th Street Task Force, which Schultz assembled, includes members from APD, the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department, the FBI, the Office of the Medical Investigator, the District Attorney's Office and State Police.
Authorities also plan to set up a tipline.
The investigation began Feb. 2 when a woman walking her dog came across what turned out to be a human hip bone, Schultz said Friday.
She found the bone just south of an area investigators are now calling "the pit," he said. The pit is about 30 yards long by 10 yards wide, and authorities have found the majority of the remains in the pit at depths ranging between 2 and 14 feet below ground.
Part of what complicates the investigation is development done by KB Home in 2007 and 2008. The company had graded and leveled the area for a home development, but construction never began.
"But a lot of dirt was moved," said APD Cmdr. Paul Fiest, who is overseeing the excavation.
Some of that dirt was moved to an area just south of the pit that investigators are calling "the collective remains area," Schultz said. Several bones have been found there as well.
"Part of our job now is to match up the remains and catalog them," he said.