A decade has passed since a woman and her dog accidentally stumbled upon the mass grave of 11 women buried in the New Mexico desert outside Albuquerque, and there is still no resolution as to who could be The West Mesa Bone Collector, the serial killer responsible for their deaths.
The Albuquerque case may seem out of the ordinary, but unsolved murder rates in America are higher than we think. Obscenely higher.
In an FBI report that studied homicides across 16,000 law enforcement agencies in 2017, the bureau found that about 40 percent went unsolved.
Some cities in the Four Corners have even higher unsolved rates. From 2010 to 2017, out of the 362 homicides investigated in Denver, 55 percent went without closure, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Also in that analysis, data showed that during that same timeline, 39 percent of 378 Albuquerque homicides went unsolved; and from 2011 to 2017, 55 percent of 914 Phoenix homicides were not cleared.
Behind these numbers, though, are people. People with dimension, families, friends, personalities, goals, and flaws. Some had fallen on hard times. Some trusted the wrong people. Many were just going about their daily lives.
We hope that by telling these stories from the Four Corners, more attention will brought to these cases, and it will raise the chances that there will be justice for these victims.
New MexicoNorma Denise SahmNorma Denise Sahm was 17 years old when she ran away from Hogares Youth Facility, a juvenile center in Albuquerque. Her body was found a year later in 1987 – Sahm been shot to death – but she wasn’t formally identified for almost two decades. She was instead labeled a “Jane Doe” and kept in an anthropology museum for 17 years before she was identified using DNA.
In the meantime, Judi Sahm, Norma’s mother, spent those years “calling the police, medical investigators, the media and politicians trying to get information about her daughter’s case and help in finding her,” according to a 2005 article by the Albuquerque Journal.
A Bernalillo County Sheriff deputy, who was 14 at the time Sahm disappeared, was one of the last people to see her alive, according to the Journal. After Sahm’s body was identified in 2005, the unnamed deputy was investigated for the slaying and was placed on paid leave during the investigation. However, due to a technicality in the law that was in place at the time of Sahm’s murder, Bernalillo County investigators were unable to pursue murder charges against him. New Mexico legislation at the time of Sahm’s murder stated that a person must be 15 years old in order to be tried as an adult. The law was changed in 1996 and now allows 14-year-olds to be charged as adults.
The deputy was a mere six weeks from his 15th birthday when Sahm vanished.
West Mesa MurdersIt’s been 10 years since the bodies of 11 women were found buried in the desert just outside Albuquerque, and still, there are no answers as to who is responsible for their untimely deaths.
In 2009, Christine Ross and her dog, Ruca, left Ross’ west Albuquerque home to go for a walk. During their outing, Ruca discovered a bone that Ross thought looked human and called the police. What Ross didn’t yet know was that she had just stumbled upon the mass gravesite of the chillingly named West Mesa Bone Collector.
Over the next few weeks, the Albuquerque Police Department unearthed the bodies of nine women, two teenage girls, and a fetus. Referred to officially as the 118th Street Homicides, their ages ranged from as young as 15 to 32, and all had gone missing between 2001-2005.
The West Mesa Bone Collector is believed to be responsible for the deaths of Jamie Barela, 15; Monica Candelaria, 22; Victoria Chavez, 26; Virginia Cloven, 24; Syllania Edwards, 15; Cinnamon Elks, 32; Doreen Marquez, 24; Julie Nieto, 24; Veronica Romero, 28; Evelyn Salazar, 27; and Michelle Valdez, 22.
While many suspects have been put forth, the Albuquerque serial killer remains at large.
ColoradoThomas Lamar LivingstonIn 1994, Thomas Lamar Livingston’s violent murder seemed a far cry from the day to day life he lived. The 35-year-old Fort Carson husband and father was a lawn mower repairman and salesman, a licensed minister, a board member of the St. John Baptist Church, and an auto mechanics student at Pikes Peak Community College, according to the Denver Post’s blog on Colorado cold cases. But on April 23, 1994, a mail package sent to the Livingston home changed all that.
That morning, Judith, Thomas’ wife, picked up a package from the post office. When she returned with the package, Thomas opened it and triggered a military grenade inside. The explosion threw Judith 10 feet, breaking her arm and giving her severe head injuries. Thomas, the father of four children ages 2 to 12, was killed. The explosion was so forceful it sent shrapnel through two blocks of the neighborhood.
During the investigation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobaccos and Firearms agents and El Paso County Sheriff officers found that the bomb was no amateur-hour job. Thomas’ killer had built the bomb in a way so that the package would only explode when opened. Even if it was jostled around when handled by postal workers, the murderer made sure that the grenade would only go off once it reached the intended target.
Several theories have been presented as to who might have wanted to kill Thomas. A year before his murder, he had a run in with a Fort Carson soldier who was later arrested for running an ATF agent off the road. There were reports of a “bespectacled, long-haired man” loitering at the post office and near the Livingston’s home. The family may have been targeted because Thomas and Judith were a mixed-race couple – Thomas was African American and Judith was white.
Despite all the different theories, however, Thomas’ killer has never been brought to justice.
Shelley RobertsonWhile he was never charged for her murder, many believe that 24-year-old Shelley Robertson may have fallen prey to and become one of the many victims of serial killer Ted Bundy.
The Arvada High School graduate was an avid traveler during her short life. According to an article by Westword, she spent a year at a mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, a semester in Barra de Navidad, Mexico with her Red Rocks Community College class, and traveled to Alaska with her friend, Susan, where they spent a year in Clam Gulch processing fish.
Roberston tragically vanished on June 29, 1975. Her body was found 24 days later, having been dumped in the Willie May Mine, one mile east of Berthoud Falls, Colorado.
Clear Creek County investigator Bob Denning interviewed Bundy in Salt Lake City while he was being tried for the kidnapping of another girl. Bundy reportedly told him, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
Though the prevailing theory is that she was a victim of one of the vilest men to have ever lived, Robertson’s case is still considered open.
UtahGabriel Distefano and Joyce Tina GallegosJoyce Tina Gallegos and Gabriel Distefano may not have known each other while they were alive, but investigators believe their deaths are forever linked by the same person. According to the Deseret News, Gallegos, 21, was last seen on August 11, 1982, in the parking lot of an Ogden, Utah movie theater. Her body was found 11 days later in the Ogden River. She’d been shot twice in the head.
Distefano, just 14 years old, had been on her way to a party in Riverdale, Utah when she vanished, just a mere four days after Gallegos. Distefano was later found in a ditch, wrapped in plastic, in Harrisville, Utah. She, too, had been shot in the head.
While the cases have never been solved, Utah police believe they are the work of the same person. The bullets from both cases were sent to a crime lab, where it was found that the bullets were fired from the same gun. In 2018, the Deseret News reported that police were re-working the case, this time with the help of the advancements in forensic technology.
Cody RodriguezThe death of Cody Rodriguez may have initially been determined a suicide by police, but his family is gathering evidence that may say otherwise.
In 2008, Rodriguez, 20, was found shot inside his Rosa Park apartment. According to ABC4 News, the Salt Lake City Police Department determined it was a suicide after an investigation and a report by the state’s medical examiner.
Rodriguez’s family didn’t buy it, though, especially after his mother, Ina, received a letter from the medical examiner stating: “no evidence of soot, gunpowder stippling or other visible residues of weapon discharge was seen on the hands of (Rodriguez).”
The family has also hired a private investigator who is looking into the case. Jason Jensen, the family’s investigator, told ABC4 News in January 2019 that after looking over crime scene pictures from the Salt Lake City Police Department, he spotted a trail of blood leading from another apartment. Blood spatter also found on Rodriguez’s roommate also seemed suspicious, the private investigator told the new station.
ArizonaMitchell BatesIt was a story that made national headlines, but the death of Mitchell Bates and the purposeful derailment of the Sunset Limited train remains open without anyone to blame.
Amtrak’s Sunset Limited was headed from Miami to Los Angeles that fateful day in October 1995. Mitchell Bates, 41, was working as a sleeping car attendant. He had served the railroad for 20 years.
Then, without warning, around 1:30 a.m., passengers heard the high-pitched scream of the brakes as the train tried to stop.
“Just [an] incredible shriek, then a really large impact, and of course it slams me into the seat in front of me,” Neal Hallford, a passenger, told NPR. “Then all of the lights go off inside the train car.”
The train had been derailed in the middle of the Arizona desert, more than 50 miles from Phoenix.
Bates was killed; 78 passengers were injured.
During the investigation, notes from the “Sons of Gestapo” were found around the crash site. The tracks had been tampered with – the railroad spikes had been removed and left by the tracks.
The identity of the Sons of Gestapo remains a mystery. No one had before, or since, heard of the group.
Brenda GerowIt was 34 years before the body of Brenda Gerow was identified, but when investigators did finally put a name to the woman found in 1981, it was through a photo that was discovered in the possession of her suspected murderer.
Gerow was 20 years old when she left her home in Nashua, New Hampshire, with John Kalhauser, a convicted killer, according to Lowell Sun News. Then, in 1981, at the age of 21, she was found violently murdered in Pima County, Arizona.
Her body remained unidentified until a photo of her – a beautiful blonde woman holding a bouquet of flowers – was found in the possession of Kalhauser decades later in 1995, when he was arrested for a 1979 attempted murder. In 1999, he was convicted of the murder of his ex-wife, Diana van Reeth, who disappeared in 1995.
The photo looked similar to a facial reconstruction investigators had done on a Jane Doe, and they released the photo on social media. Her body and photo were confirmed to be Gerow in 2015.
Kalhauser has not been charged for Gerow’s murder, and there are still more questions than answers in this case.