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'People Talking' in Mesa Case

By Jeff Proctor
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
      Late last week, police served a search warrant in an old sexual assault cold case detectives believe is related to the investigation into the deaths of 11 women whose remains were uncovered on the Far Southwest Mesa earlier this year.
       The warrant has been sealed by a judge, but Police Chief Ray Schultz told the Journal this week that detectives did collect evidence that could be related to the West Mesa case at an Albuquerque home Friday.
       It was the second search warrant police have served in recent weeks, the chief said, as detectives continue their effort to unravel the mystery surrounding the women's deaths and burials in shallow graves near 118th and Dennis Chavez SW.
       Schultz wouldn't discuss any details of the first warrant detectives served.
       He did, however, say he is pleased with the overall progress of the investigation, which began Feb. 2 when a woman found a human leg bone on the mesa while walking her dog.
       The 40-member task force charged with finding the women's killer “continues to be extremely active,” Schultz said. “A lot of the information we've gathered has led us to more information, more people with information about the case. This investigation has been like a chain: We follow the links, get referrals and chase those down. It's a good thing. People are talking.”
       Not even the exhaustive work detectives put in on the Baby Angel case during the past few weeks has hindered the West Mesa investigation, the chief said.
       “That case was at its height at the end of last week, and that's when we served this search warrant,” he said. “I don't want people to think we've slowed down on (the West Mesa case).
       “In the last two weeks alone, we've been in Texas, Arizona and all throughout New Mexico following up leads.”
       Albuquerque detectives have also spoken with authorities in Wisconsin about a possible connection between the West Mesa killings and a similar case there.
       Milwaukee police say they've linked seven cases there to a possible serial killer who's suspected of a number of prostitute murders over more than two decades. Authorities there said Tuesday they had linked another dead prostitute to the suspected killer — whose identity is not known — using DNA evidence. The one victim not connected to prostitution was involved in drugs.
       The homicides in Wisconsin occurred between 1986 and 2007 on the city's north side. Now, officers have submitted or resubmitted DNA samples from more than two dozen unsolved homicides to see if they are connected.
       The West Mesa victims were likely killed and buried between 2003 and 2005, police say. They had all struggled with addiction and had arrest histories that included prostitution charges.
       Schultz has declined to elaborate on evidence that was unearthed with the women's remains, but he did say this week that it is still being processed.
       “Some of it is very research-intensive,” he said. “For example: With some of the evidence, we have to determine if it was custom made or if it's something you could buy in a store. And if it is sold, how many were made and who were they sold to?”
       Despite the progress, the chief said, one factor that may be hindering the investigation is a lack of reward money for information leading to the killer. Schultz is a firm believer in reward money as a prime motivator for tipsters in high-profile homicide cases.
       “I am starting to get a little frustrated,” he said. “But we are still hoping for some state or federal assistance in developing a substantial reward. We really believe it will help.”
       During the legislative session earlier this year, a bill unanimously passed the House that would have established a $25,000 reward. But the bill, which was sponsored by House Speaker Ben Lujan, died in the Senate.
       A group of West Side legislators, including Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, also passed a nonbinding resolution that honors the victims and calls for more resources to be used to expeditiously investigate the circumstances of their deaths.
       Lopez said Wednesday she and other legislators are reaching out to the business community in an effort to raise reward money.
       “There haven't been any results yet, but I'm sure there will be soon,” she said. “Getting state money right now is problematic because when the Legislature is not in session, we have no control over budgets.”
       APD continues to receive assistance from FBI agents, including criminal profilers. As much as that help has aided the investigation, many loose ends remain, the chief said.
       “The profilers have told us that this case has got some very unique characteristics,” he said. “So there really are no other cases to compare it to — there's no template. That includes everything from the massive (remains) recovery effort to phase two, the investigative phase, which is where we are now.”
       Schultz said detectives are beginning to zero in on a list of fewer than 10 potential suspects in the case, although the word “suspect” remains somewhat inaccurate because the Office of the Medical Investigator is still awaiting peer review to fully determine the cause and manner of the women's deaths.
       “As we move forward, sometimes a name drops off the list and another takes its place,” Schultz said. “And there are a few names on the list that we have not been able to eliminate and that we continue to look closely at.”
       Two cases the chief says have remained on detectives' radar are:
       â 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 killer in that case was fatally shot by the woman's associate as he was moving her body. Police said at the time that they believed the killing was not that suspect's first and that they were looking into his possible involvement in the disappearances of several prostitutes since 2001.
       â Another case detectives are looking into is that of a well-known Albuquerque pimp who died of natural causes in 2009 and who had pictures of missing prostitutes, some of whom were later found buried on the mesa, in his home.
       Seven of the 11 women have been identified. They are: Victoria Chavez, Julie Nieto, Gina Michelle Valdez, Cinnamon Elks, Veronica Romero, Monica Candelaria and Doreen Marquez. Valdez was four months pregnant when she was killed and buried.
       Schultz said authorities are still working to identify the other four through DNA and dental records.

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