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Crime Story Tugs at the Heart

By Jeff Proctor
Of the Journal
      For more than two months, Albuquerque Police Cmdr. Paul Feist has been combing the far Southwest Mesa for human remains. He has stood in the desert and watched as skeletons of 11 women have been unearthed from shallow graves.
    Feist recently related how the investigation of "the largest crime scene in Albuquerque history" has affected him emotionally.
    He said the dusty patch of mesa near 118th and Dennis Chavez SW has invaded his dreams, then he paused and added: "Right after you find something, there's a moment of, 'Wow. That was a girl I found in that hole.' "
    Friends, relatives, colleagues and readers have also asked me how it has been to cover this story. After a recent visit to the site with a friend, a moment of quiet thought brought the answer: difficult.
    It has been like a cage fight — two diametrically opposed emotional experiences vying for space in my head and in my heart.
    Fighting out of one corner is the excitement of covering a story that is considerably more multifaceted than most. There are the major updates — increases in the body count, the identification of another victim — the CSI-type stories, profiles of the victims and questions about what to do with the site once the excavation is over.
    In the other corner is the human tragedy. People do horrible things to one another. There's no reconciling that.
    Maybe it's the magnitude of the loss of life, or the undignified way in which the victims were dumped on the mesa. Maybe it's the fact the killer's identity remains elusive. Maybe it's all of the above.
    In any case, I have wrestled with my emotions while covering this story.
    Most days during the past nine-plus weeks, after another high-energy, chaotic sprint through the news gathering process and the writing of a story, I have gone home and lain awake.
    Feist is right.
    These were girls, flesh-and-blood human beings who had become young women.
    Police have theorized that they wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time as addiction did in their lives what addiction does in so many lives — blurs judgment and justifies behaviors and actions other folks would see as crazy. They had resorted to prostitution to feed the jones.
    But we need to remember they had names.
    Six have been identified: Victoria Chavez, Gina Michelle Valdez, Cinnamon Elks, Julie Nieto, Monica Candelaria and Veronica Romero.
    And they had families, who have responded in interviews with tears, regrets, sadness. Most of each conversation has been about what their loved ones were like before all the bad choices, the darkness of addiction, the day or night they disappeared.
    Each one was a daughter; some were mothers, sisters. All were someone's friend. All had smiles, personalities, futures.
    One day, after one more poor decision, there was no more future. They were gone, victims of a possible serial killer who wasn't interested in the fact they had families and dreams. Instead, whoever is responsible buried these girls in shallow graves in a desolate, dusty place.
    Now they are bones.
    No one deserves that.
    But people do terrible things. It is my job to write about them, and I've thought a lot about the best way to do that in this case.
    Early on, I used the phrase "known prostitute and drug user" to describe the victims who were identified. But after a conversation with one of the families — and a sleepless night — the description became "women who struggled with addiction and a lifestyle that included prostitution charges."
    Some people have asked why mention lifestyle at all.
    Quite simply, because it is lifestyle that links them together and that will, eventually, link their killer to them.
    The public wants to know who is responsible for a series of crimes that will long remain in this city's collective memory. So do the police, who had been working to solve this puzzle years before the first bone was found.
    So do I.
    For now, though, coverage of this story will continue from every angle. And in a way, that's respectful.
    UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach Jeff Proctor at 823-3951 or jproctor@abqjournal.com.

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