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An unidentified man surveys the scene where human remains were discovered in this Feb. 27, 2009, photo along the southwest outskirts of Albuquerque, N.M. Once the site of a halted residential subdivision, investigators and forensics experts found the remains of 11 women. (AP Photo/Sergio Salvador)
Albuquerque’s ‘crime of the century’ murders go unsolved

Women victims » Tips in Albuquerque crimes hint at drug gangs, dirty cops

First Published Feb 19 2014 12:17 pm • Last Updated Feb 19 2014 12:34 pm

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.

At a glance

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.

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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."

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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.

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