Monday, January 31, 2011
Mother Will Keep Searching for Answers
By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Journal Staff Writer
Two years ago this week, a woman's dog clawed a bone from the dirt of an undeveloped subdivision off 118th north of Dennis Chavez on Albuquerque's Southwest Mesa.
Some 1,800 miles away in South Carolina, Karen Caldwell Jackson wondered whether that bone might provide the answers she had sought for 4 1/2 years.
It did. Partly.
The discovery on Feb. 2, 2009, as we know now, led to the discoveries of other bones, skeletal remains of 11 women lost and tossed away on what is still the largest crime scene in Albuquerque history.
One of those women was Michelle Valdez, 22 and pregnant when she was killed and buried on the mesa by a yet-unidentified serial killer.
That was Jackson's first answer — Michelle was her daughter.
But the answer did not come quite as quickly as it had for her ex-husband, Dan Valdez of Albuquerque, who was notified of the identification Feb. 24, 2009. No one told Jackson until the next day — a delay that still irks her.
"It's just been convenient to ignore me," Jackson lamented in one of our phone conversations. "I bet most people think Michelle's mother wasn't a part of her life. Well, I was."
And so it has gone for Jackson, who has often felt as forgotten as many of the women and their families surely felt until the bones were dug up.
Jackson was interviewed for a Journal story about Michelle. But most reporters, including those from "America's Most Wanted" and "Dateline," have stuck to interviewing only Valdez, de facto spokesman not only for his family but for many of the others.
"I'm comfortable giving interviews when some of the others are not," he said.
Valdez insists he has told reporters about his ex-wife's efforts to find Michelle, the eldest of their three daughters.
"That never makes it into the news," he said.
So now, two years later, it is.
Jackson remembers Michelle as a strong-willed child, beautiful and bright, who was deeply affected by her parents' divorce in 1994 and Jackson's subsequent move back East.
Jackson and Valdez shared custody of the girls. Michelle, then 12, chose to live with Jackson. But that did not last.
"She just thought she was going to run with the 15-, 16-, 17-year-old girls and boys, and I had rules and regulations," Jackson said. "And she pretty much told me she was going to do what she wanted and then she punched me in the face."
Jackson said she called social services, which arranged to place Michelle in inpatient treatment. Valdez, however, balked and brought Michelle back to Albuquerque.
"I felt that I could probably take care of her and discipline her and keep her better in line," he said. "I don't believe in locking up somebody unless they've done a major crime."
By 13, Michelle was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, whom her family helped care for. Jackson believes Michelle was already using drugs.
There were days when Michelle was still that bright, high-spirited girl. But then she would become lost along the fringes, lost to drugs and prostitution but still able to find her way back until Sept. 22, 2004, the last time her family saw her.
Michelle missed her daughter's seventh birthday six days later, something she had never done no matter how bad things had gotten.
That November, Michelle's sister received a chilling phone call from an acquaintance whose aunt, like Michelle, frequented the streets.
The caller said her aunt had heard that both Michelle and Cinnamon had been stabbed and discarded on the mesa.
Jackson didn't know it then, but Cinnamon was likely Cinnamon Elks, the third woman identified from the remains, missing since August 2004.
Jackson, from her home in South Carolina, said she urged Valdez to go to the police. But Valdez didn't file a missing persons report until February 2005, and then made no mention of the ominous phone call.
"Filling out a missing persons report on your child is quite overwhelming," Valdez said. "In the heat of the moment, I might have forgotten."
Jackson could not.
In May 2005, she returned to Albuquerque to file her own missing persons report and post fliers around the city. She worked the phones and the Internet almost daily, calling Albuquerque police with tips and demands to know what was being done to find Michelle.
She enlisted relatives, friends and members of her church to bombard Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz with requests to turn up the heat on the investigation.
"I was the one pushing this," she said. "Dan was the one who was driving the streets looking for her. He wanted to believe she wasn't dead. But I knew."
Jackson said she also contacted local TV stations, asking them to publicize her daughter's case. None would.
"I told one girl, 'Oh, you mean to tell me there's someone there who determines whether my daughter is worthy of 20 seconds of your airtime?' and she says, 'Yeah, pretty much,' " Jackson said. "And I told her, 'Well I hope no one there ever has a loved one go missing and someone has to tell them they aren't worthy of 20 seconds.' "
Albuquerque police have said they did what they could to find Michelle and the others when they were listed as missing.
Jackson disagrees. She is, however, far more pleased with police efforts now that the women, what remained of them, have been found.
She waits, as we all do, for the last questions to be answered:
Who killed the women on the mesa? Who killed Michelle?
So she keeps making her phone calls, unwilling to give up, ignored no more.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.