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Thursday, March 12, 2009
Slaying Victims Linked
By Jeff Proctor
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
The four women shared a common bond: A lifestyle that included a fringe existence of transient living, struggles with drug addiction and arrests for prostitution.
They also all knew each other.
Who else they all may have known may be as important. That's the question detectives are now scrutinizing as they try to unravel the mystery of 13 victims whose remains have been discovered on the far Southwest Mesa during the past six weeks.
“We've got several detectives working hard on that angle right now,” Police Chief Ray Schultz told the Journal on Wednesday. “These girls definitely had contact with each other. What or who may those contacts have also led to?”
The chief continued to keep certain cards of the investigation into the deaths close to the vest. He did concede that evidence has been found with the victims' bones, though he would not elaborate.
“We do have some things in terms of evidence we think will work to our advantage,” he said.
On Wednesday, police released the names of Cinnamon Elks and Julie Nieto. Both were reported missing in 2004: Elks, born in 1972, by a former roommate, and Nieto, who was born in 1980, by a cousin.
Nieto was the sixth victim found on the mesa near 118th and Dennis Chavez SW; Elks was the eighth. The Office of the Medical Investigator used dental and medical records to identify the women's remains.
Elks and Nieto join Victoria Chavez, whose skeleton was the first found, and Gina Michelle Valdez, previously known as Jane Doe No. 9, as those who have been identified.
All four were reported missing in 2004 or early 2005. All of their names are on a list of missing prostitutes that detectives began compiling in 2001. The list, which has expanded and contracted as detectives have gotten new information, now stands at 16.
“It's not uncommon that they knew each other,” the chief said. “It's a small community we're talking about. These girls all kind of watch out for each other. They let each other know when something is out of the ordinary, when someone is out there who has an unusual fetish that's just too weird and is driving a certain car.
“What is unusual is that, in this case, we didn't have anyone coming forward and saying that. The thing to remember, though, is that there seems to be all this speculation about the prostitution aspect of this case. It is just as likely that it could be the drug connection.”
The identification of Elks and Nieto came courtesy of “tireless” work done by the staff at OMI, Schultz said.
More than 24,000 cubic yards of dirt have been moved at the mesa site since Feb. 2, when a woman walking her dog found what turned out to be a human hip bone.
The chief said investigators have “found something whether it be a single bone or a vertebrae almost every day.” Nine of the skeletons are now complete or nearly complete.
But the two recent identifications haven't narrowed the scope of what the chief calls a “360-degree investigation” or gotten police any closer to identifying any suspects or making an arrest.
The chief said Wednesday that investigators are still considering a wide range of possibilities including:
n A man who strangled a prostitute in December 2006 and was fatally shot by her associate while he was trying to move her body.
n A well-known Albuquerque pimp who died in January of natural causes.
n Gang activity. Although Schultz wouldn't explain this theory, there have long been rumors of gangs killing prostitutes after using them to run drugs.
n Prisoners incarcerated in the state. Schultz would not say why the person was in prison.
n Someone who is deployed overseas in the military.
n Someone who “had something against prostitutes” or who “thought they were doing the Lord's work by killing these people.”
It's still too early, the chief said, to call anyone a suspect because of the wide range of theories police are considering and because the OMI has yet to determine cause or manner of death.
The victims' families say they have long suspected their loved ones might have fallen victim to some sort of foul play.
Gloria Gonzales, Nieto's aunt, said Nieto was totally dedicated to her son, who is now 9.
“Even at her lowest points, she would never leave her son,” Gonzales said. “She sent Christmas presents and Easter baskets when (her son) was staying in Los Lunas and she was in Albuquerque. When that stopped, we knew something had happened.”
And when police began uncovering remains on the mesa, Nieto's family “thought the worst,” Gonzales said.
“Julie always treated the family with respect,” she said. “I could trust her in the house alone. She tried to get off drugs several times. She was a good person.”
On Wednesday, a group of state senators introduced a joint memorial honoring the women whose bodies have been unearthed at the site and those who have been reported missing over the past decade.
“We must remember that these women have families that are hurting due to their disappearance,” said Sen. Bernadette Sanchez, D-Albuquerque. “These women were suffering from the consequences of substance abuse and became victims of a person or persons who took fatal advantage of their circumstances.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.