Thursday, February 19, 2009
By Jeff Proctor
Journal Staff Writer
Police believe they may have found the final pieces of Victoria Chavez's skeleton on Wednesday as they continued to excavate a large swath of the far Southwest Mesa where the remains of six people have been uncovered in the past two weeks.
Chavez, whose mother reported her missing in 2005 and told police her daughter was a “known drug user and prostitute,” is the only one of the six skeletons investigators have positively identified so far.
Detectives are “following several logical steps and assumptions” in the case and believe the same person is likely responsible for burying the bodies on the mesa, police spokesman John Walsh said Wednesday. Among those:
n The remains have all been found within about 20 yards of each other in an area off 118th and Dennis Chavez SW.
n The burial sites correspond with a set of tire tracks police identified with satellite images.
n The bones appear to be from bodies put on the mesa around the same time period 2004 to 2005.
Walsh said if what the early stages of the investigation point to is true that someone killed at least six people and buried them on the mesa then the city of Albuquerque has never seen the equal of such a crime.
But that's a lot of ifs, he said.
“This is a forensics case now,” Walsh said. “This will take weeks if not months. The first thing we are looking for is the ID of all the victims. From there, we need to determine where their lives crossed paths through their associations and their associates.
“We're taking the logical step of investigating this as a violent crime scene. And if that turns out to be correct, then we've never seen anything like this that I can remember. But some of the questions I've been getting have us putting the cart before the horse. We're just not there yet.”
The Office of the Medical Investigator is working to determine manner of death for each of the six people found. Complicating that is the age of the bones and the fact that four of the six skeletons are not complete.
The size of the area police are searching about 100 square acres has provided difficulties of its own. The area was a barren stretch of desert five years ago, when investigators believe the bodies were put there. Since then, a planned development still unfinished led to grading and leveling.
A multiagency team is using cadaver-sniffing dogs, aerial and satellite maps to comb the site for human remains and to develop leads. Technology has helped investigators locate seven areas where the ground has been disturbed.
In six of those areas, remains have been found. Excavation will continue today.
A nearly complete skeleton found in one of the disturbed areas on Tuesday was more than 10 feet underground. So investigators had to use heavy equipment to dig most of the way down, then more precise equipment to uncover the remains.
A private company was at the site Wednesday, Walsh said, giving police a demonstration of ground-penetrating X-ray technology. Police will decide during the next few days whether to contract with the company to use its equipment.
Investigators are considering an “extensive” list of suspects in the case, Police Chief Ray Schultz has said.
One case police are interested in, he said, involved a prostitute who was killed in late 2006 in a southwest Albuquerque trailer just a few miles from the large crime scene off 118th. The suspected killer in that case was fatally shot as he was moving the woman's body.
Police at the time said they believed the killing of the prostitute was not that suspect's first, and they were looking into his possible involvement in the disappearances of several prostitutes since 2001.
Police think the victims may all have been female prostitutes. 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.
The list has kept investigators “far ahead of the game” in their search to identify the victims and, eventually, their killer, he said.
Victoria Chavez's name was on the list, Schultz said.