Thursday, February 12, 2009
Police: One Person Likely Buried Bodies
By Jeff Proctor
Journal Staff Writer
It's “far too early to say” whether a serial killer is responsible for the deaths of three women whose remains were found on the West Mesa last week, according to police.
But investigators believe all three of the women may have been prostitutes and that the same person put their bodies in a remote area near 118th and Dennis Chavez SW.
Complicating their investigation is the condition of the more-than-5-year-old remains and a crime scene that is more than 100 square acres in size. The area also has undergone extensive development in the past several years: Earth has been moved and runoff from arroyos has brought animal bones into the area.
A multi-agency team is using cadaver-sniffing dogs, aerial and satellite mapping and ground-penetrating radar to comb the site for human remains and to develop leads. The investigation began Feb. 2 when a citizen called police to report some bones on the mesa.
Police have identified Victoria Chavez, a “known prostitute and drug user” in her mid-20s who disappeared in 2004, as the woman whose complete skeleton was found in a shallow grave on the site. She was identified through dental records.
The other two women were likely put there during the same time period, about five or six years ago, police say.
But only 75 percent of one of their remains has been uncovered, and only 20 percent of the other's has been found, APD spokesman John Walsh said. Neither set of remains includes dental records.
That makes identifying the women difficult, he said, and determining the manner of death even more difficult.
“It's hard to get DNA to do a comparison,” Walsh said. “DNA doesn't run around with a name tag on it. This investigation is going to be meticulous, arduous and slow. Every single avenue available to us is very time-consuming. We will be on this case as long as it takes.”
Police Chief Ray Schultz said investigators are focusing on a database of 24 women in their 20s who have disappeared in the past decade-plus. There are dental records for 17 of those women.
“Our investigation may go beyond the borders of New Mexico into other jurisdictions,” he said.
The chief said police have “come to believe the same individual” is responsible for placing the women's remains on the mesa. He declined to elaborate.
Walsh said it's too early to identify any suspects mainly because no manner of death has been determined yet. He did say that detectives are looking at more than 20 cases that are already on APD's radar screen for leads.
One of those, he said, involved a prostitute who was brutally murdered in a trailer on Blake SW just a few miles from the large crime scene off 118th in late 2006. The suspected killer in that case fatally shot himself.
At the time, police said they believed the killing had not been the suspect's first. They were looking into his possible involvement in the disappearances of several missing prostitutes since 2001.
On Wednesday, the expanse of mesa where the remains were found was empty. Several APD vehicles drove by the area during the mid- to late morning, but no one went inside the walled-off area where the remains were found last week.
Schultz said APD is getting assistance in the investigation from a variety of agencies, some of which are somewhat off the beaten trail of a typical violent crimes probe.
For example: Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories are providing satellite imaging and mapping of the area from five years ago and the present. The chief said that gives investigators a better feel for what the area looked like at the time the women's bodies were buried there compared to how it looks now.
KB Homes had begun a large development in the area, he said. The builders did extensive grading and in some cases had done dirt work up to 10 feet deep.
Investigators also hope to use military ground-penetrating radar to get a better understanding of what's underneath the site.