Albuquerque, N.M. • Five years have passed since the bodies of 11 young women were found buried in shallow graves in this city’s West Mesa area, and police are no closer today to solving Albuquerque’s “crime of the century.”
The victims were reported missing in 2003 and 2004, and their families claim the police did little to find them. The police department convened a hastily called meeting with the families on Jan. 26 to discuss the status of the investigation.
In 2007, Albuquerque police had developed a list of 16 women, most of them described by police as prostitutes and drug users, who were reported missing between 2001 and 2006. That was the first clue that a serial killer or killers could be at work.
The Albuquerque Tribune, after a reporter’s ride-along with police, ran a front-page story on Sept. 15, 2007, about the missing women. There was no big outcry from community leaders, back then.
Relatives of several of the West Mesa murder victims, whose bodies were discovered in February 2009, said police initially brushed off the possibility of a serial killer and failed to investigate the disappearances as potential kidnappings and homicides.
“They saw them as ‘oh, just another prostitute dead,’” said Gloria Gonzalez, the aunt of Julie Nieto, one of the West Mesa victims.
Ray Schultz, who retired as the police chief, said that wasn’t true, that police worked hard to find all missing persons. The families also claim that the Albuquerque Police Department appears to be distracted by a series of recent scandals, including the loss of all kinds of evidence from the evidence storage room; a U.S. Justice Department investigation into allegations of police brutality; and allegations of sexual assault by police officers.
Albuquerque police denied that this is the case.
Dirk Gibson, an expert on serial killers who teaches the University of New Mexico, said the unsolved West Mesa murders are Albuquerque’s “crime of the century.”
“This is almost certainly a case of serial murder. Unless a number of women independently decided to walk there to die, there is no other explanation besides serial murder,” Gibson said. “The West Mesa site is only a dumping ground. The murders were committed elsewhere. It is possible that the murders are on-going, but that a different dump site is being used.”
Gibson said he leans toward the theory that more than one person was involved in the slayings, possibly a man with accomplices or a gang. The victims represent a vulnerable population that drug gangs and other types of gangs and or pimps can prey on, he said, and they are also targets for extortionists.
Albuquerque police spokeswoman Sgt. Tasia Martinez said the 118th Street Task Force, which was created to investigate the 11 murders, is actively investigating. She said Crime Stoppers is offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the murders.
The police department would not disclose how many detectives serve on the task force, if they are coordinating efforts with other law enforcement agencies, or the detectives’ experience in homicide investigations.
“We cannot comment because this is an active investigation,” Martinez said.
The original police list of the missing women, published by the now defunct Albuquerque Tribune newspaper, began with the 2001 case of 20-year-old
Darlene Trujillo, who was last seen July 5, 2001, and included Sonia Lente, who disappeared on Oct. 3, 2002.
The published list also included the names of eight of the 11 West Mesa murder victims, whose bodies were found in February 2009, two years after the story ran. Back then, the police missing person’s unit had only one detective assigned full time to investigate hundreds of missing person’s reports the police received each year.
Police said additional resources were added since then to find runaways and other missing persons.
The remains of Lente, who was last seen leaving a local casino with a man, were found Feb. 25, 2004 in a shallow grave on Isleta Pueblo land.
The credit for the break in the case - the FBI confirmed Lente’s identification in 2009 - went not to police but to a citizen “cyber sleuth” who saw a connection between a police sketch and Lente’s description in the Doe Network, a website devoted to publicizing missing person’s cases.
FBI officials, who provided profilers and forensic experts to the investigation, deferred questions about the West Mesa murders to the Albuquerque Police Department.
During the early stages of the investigation, detectives from New Mexico consulted with counterparts in El Paso, and cold case detectives from Las Cruces examined the West Mesa site looking for clues for their own cases, officials said.
According to autopsy reports, the medical examiner in Albuquerque reported “homicidal violence” as the cause of death for all 11 of the West Mesa victims.
The manner in which they were killed was undetermined, and all of them were pronounced dead as of Feb. 2, 2009.
“Some acts of violence, such as strangulation or suffocation, may not leave any detectable injuries to skeletal remains and could not be ruled out by this investigation,” the autopsy reports stated.
The victims were found within an area of the West Mesa that was 100 square-feet. Razing for development had begun at the site but was left unfinished nearly a year before a couple that lives near the site came across a human bone and called the police.
The site, which was fenced off, has a commanding view of downtown Albuquerque in the distance and stretches over an arroyo, which is why some of the remains were found in graves that varied in depth from 8 to 18 inches. No clothing or personal belongings, such a purse, were found on the remains.
“There was some fragmentation and postmortem damage caused by construction equipment prior to the discovery of the burial site and recovery efforts,” according to the autopsy report for 32-year-old Doreen Marquez.
“Ms. Marquez had a history of multiple pregnancies and has two children,” the report said. “She also had a history of illicit drug use and prostitution.”
Five years ago, on Feb. 2, Christine Ross said she was walking through the site with her husband and their dog “Ruca” when they spotted a bone sticking out of the ground. The couple thought the bone was suspicious, and asked a nurse to look at a picture of it. After the nurse said it was human, the couple called police.
“I think about it constantly,” Ross said. “I watched the excavations that went on for months. The investigators showed us the satellite pictures that were used to locate the graves. They looked at areas in the terrain that might be disturbed, and that’s how they located the bodies. Forensic specialists from the FBI were there as well.”
Lupe Lopez-Haynes, an advocate for the victims’ families, said “The police didn’t find them. If it hadn’t been for the person who stumbled on the bones, the families would still be looking for their girls.”
Looking back on what happened, Ross said, “I’m glad I had role in finding the missing women. This way the families could stop their searching and be able to give them a proper burial.”
Anyone with information about the serial murders may contact Crime Stoppers at (505) 843-STOP, or the 118th Street Task Force (877) 765-8273
Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6140. Research for this project was underwritten in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
More about the killings
Read the El Paso Times list of the women who were killed or remain missing. While police may not be saying much about the case, the families are receiving and discussing their own tips.