Content warning: This article includes descriptions of murder and sexual assault.On Feb. 2, 2009, Christine Ross was walking her dog Ruca in a suburban housing development on Albuquerque’s West Mesa when they found a bone. Realizing it was a human femur, Ross contacted the police. As they investigated the area where the body was buried, authorities uncovered the remains of 11 women and one unborn child.
The women had gone missing between 2001 and 2005 and were similar — most of them were sex workers, most of them were Hispanic, and all of them were murdered. Authorities believe that a serial killer was responsible for the deaths, but in the almost 12 years since the crime became known, no suspects have ever been named.
The Albuquerque Police Department considers the West Mesa murders an active investigation, but as time goes on, it seems less and less likely that the city will ever learn who killed the women — or whether they are the only bodies buried on the mesa.
Bones on the MesaIn 2005, Albuquerque police detective Ida Lopez compiled a list of missing women after noticing that an inordinate number of women with ties to drugs and prostitution had vanished off of the city’s streets. Four years later, ten of them — Jamie Barela, 15; Monica Candelaria, 22; Victoria Chavez, 26; Virginia Cloven, 24; Cinnamon Elks, 32; Doreen Marquez, 24; Julie Nieto, 24; Veronica Romero, 28; Evelyn Salazar, 27; and Michelle Valdez, 22, who was four months pregnant when she was killed — were found buried on the mesa. The other one, Syllania Edwards, was 15 and had run away from her foster home in Lawton, Oklahoma.
The area where the bodies were found had been barren, empty land before housing developments began to encroach on it in 2006. The 2008 Housing Bubble collapse, however, halted that development before it reached the burial site. Before it ceased, the development had covered an existing arroyo, and complaints of flooding from nearby residents led the developer, KB Homes, to build a retaining wall to channel rainwater into a retention pond. This construction inadvertently uncovered the bone found on Feb 2.
The resulting criminal investigation, which uncovered the bodies of the 11 women over a two month period, was the largest in the history of New Mexico. It took almost a year to identify all of the victims, and the bones did not reveal how they were killed, though authorities have said they suspect strangulation. The fact that the bodies were found in a group led investigators to believe they were killed by one person — a serial killer who has come to be known as the West Mesa Bone Collector.
The investigation, at least publicly, was unable to establish any major connections between the women.
“We know that some of these women definitely would have known each other just by virtue of where they were,” said Tierna Unruh-Enos, an Albuquerque-based journalist who started “The Mesa,” a podcast delving into details of the murders, this year. “Albuquerque is not that big of a city. There have definitely been some more interesting connections that have come out in terms of like family members somehow knowing each other randomly, children of the women being in dance classes together, even though that wasn’t necessarily a factor either.”
Very little, if any, evidence was uncovered pointing toward the identity of the person who killed the women. As a result, the police have never named anyone as a suspect in the case, which remains active. They have, however, mentioned two individuals as persons of interest. (The distinction is important: A “suspect” is someone the police believe committed a crime; a “person of interest” may or may not be involved or have information about a crime.)
On Dec. 19, 2006, 19-year-old Shericka Hill met Lorenzo Montoya, 39, in a chat room and agreed to meet in person. During the meeting, police told the Albuquerque Journal, Hill and Montoya arranged for Hill to come to his mobile home — a few miles away from where the West Mesa victims would be found three years later — to perform a dance for him. Hill’s boyfriend, Frederick Williams, drove her to Montoya’s house and remained in the car while Hill went inside.
After waiting an hour, Williams grew concerned and went to check on Hill, bringing his gun with him. He encountered Montoya outside the home and Montoya brandished a gun. Feeling threatened, Williams shot him dead.
Williams found Hill dead inside the residence, bound with duct tape and strangled. It appeared that Montoya was transporting her body to his car.
“You don’t see this type of violent act committed the way it was,” Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz said at the time. “It seemed like he knew what he was doing. It was very well planned and orchestrated, and that is what is worrisome about this.”
According to court records, Montoya had previously been arrested in 1999 under suspicion of sexually assaulting a 23-year-old prostitute, who told police Montoya had put his hands around her throat and choked her before he was caught by detectives. The case was later dismissed in metropolitan Court and never refiled. Montoya had also been arrested on suspicion of patronizing prostitutes in 1998 and 2005.
As Unruh-Enos points out, the fact that he killed one sex worker and may have tried to strangle another does not necessarily mean he killed others. No evidence connects him to the West Mesa killings. But notably, all of the West Mesa victims were killed before Montoya’s death.
Joseph BleaWithin a week of the discovery of the first bone on the West Mesa, April Gillen contacted the police and suggested that they look into her ex-husband Joseph Blea. The man already had a significant history with the APD.
According to a search warrant affidavit, between 1990 and 2009, police had run across him over 130 times, usually in the area the West Mesa victims were said to have frequented — the East Central corridor. He was charged with the rape of a 14-year-old he knew, but that case was dropped. And his DNA was found on a prostitute left dead on the side of a street in 1985, though he was never charged for that crime.
After the discovery of the West Mesa Murders, police tailed Blea’s car for four days as he drove back and forth along Central Avenue. Police wrote that he appeared to be stalking prostitutes but never approached them. When police searched his home in late 2009, they found women’s jewelry and underwear. His wife, Cheryl Blea, told police that she and her daughter had found articles of both that didn’t belong to them around their home.
Years later, Robert Cloven, the father of West Mesa victim Virginia Cloven, told the Journal that families of the victims had noticed that the women’s jewelry was missing.
The only piece of evidence that the APD says may connect to him the murders, however, is a plant tag for a Spearmint juniper that was found near Virginia Cloven’s buried remains. The tag was traced to a nursery in California that provided plants for others in Albuquerque. Blea’s business records as a landscaper showed that he bought plants from those nurseries.
The case for charging Blea as the West Mesa Bone Collector never materialized, but evidence of other crimes did.
A rape kit collected in 1988 after a 13-year-old eighth-grader was assaulted near McKinley Middle School was tested in 2010 and led investigators to Blea. He was convicted for the crime in 2015. He then pled no contest when charged with the rapes of two women and another child that occurred between 1990 and 1993.
Blea, who is now 63, is currently serving a 90-year prison sentence. He has repeatedly denied any involvement in the West Mesa Murders, and he has never been charged with killing anyone.
Other theoriesIt’s far from the most popular theory, but some believe that there is no individual West Mesa Bone Collector.
Thomas Grover is currently a lawyer in Albuquerque, but from January 2004 through December 2011, he was an officer with the APD, with the rank of sergeant when he resigned. These days he spends a lot of time representing officers throughout New Mexico in administrative matters and bringing whistle-blower actions against law enforcement agencies.
To him, the inability of the Albuquerque Police Department to find a suspect in the killings is emblematic of the disorder within the department.
“The best way to describe it is like a giant family domestic relations dispute where you’ve got some alliances working together, you’ve got antagonisms between others,” he said. “Ranks within the department personnel, cliques within the department, even units or divisions, have this acrimony, and from that, you don’t get the best application to whatever issues are going on that the community needs addressed, whether it’s large scale crimes, criminal events, ongoing patterns of criminal activity — criminal rapes for instance.”
He describes a department in which many of the best officers have departed over recent years, and supervisors with little experience and a relatively weak knowledge base are running the show. As a result, the APD has gotten increasingly less efficient and effective. Grover said that when he left the department, he thought it was going off the rails by not recognizing the concerns of citizens about the use of force and the escalating number of officer-involved shootings. That trend eventually brought the Department of Justice in to investigate the APD, which he said further reduced the police department’s efficiency.
As for why he doubts a West Mesa serial killer exists, he points to the fact that there was not a search for one prior to when the victims were found. Though Grover was never involved in the investigations, he knew people who were and confirms that there was a perception that prostitutes were disappearing — something that officers like Ida Lopez were concerned about at the time. But patterns of behavior surrounding the disappearances never suggested that they were directly related or that one person was behind them.
Grover compares this to the efforts to capture a serial robber who stole from Albuquerque businesses in the early 2000s by disassembling safes after hours. He said that even beyond the burglary unit, there was a massive effort among street-level officers to know what to look for that might indicate a robbery was being committed by this individual rather than a common thief. The burglar was never caught, but the search nevertheless illustrates to Grover that even a department in chaos was able to devote resources to catching a serial offender when they thought one existed — something that was never done in relation to the vanishing sex workers.
“Whenever there was a notion that there was an adversarial type entity out there, whether it was the burglar, or some sort of gangs, or something that really attracted a lot of attention among folks in the department ... just sort of the notion that there was a true bad guy out there — this is why a lot of people become cops,” he said. “You don’t necessarily want to go after the guys that are just committing crimes to fund drug habits. I mean, we’re talking about someone who’s a true antisocial adversary. And when those types of investigations were going on, everyone would sort of hear about it. And even if — and I don’t think this would be the case — but even if you’re talking about someone who preyed on the most vulnerable ... spectrum of society, sex workers, I don’t think that would take away from anyone’s interest.”
Why were the West Mesa victims all found in the same general area? That’s just where bodies ended up in Albuquerque, regardless of the crime.
That’s sort of the history of the West Side and the unincorporated abandoned area,” Grover said. “Detritus would just get left out there.”
Ongoing investigationsThe West Mesa Murders have never been designated a cold case by the Albuquerque Police Department, allegedly because the team investigating them, the 118th Street Task Force, consistently gets new tips about the killings. This also has the obfuscating effect of the department sharing few details about the investigation with the media and public, citing that doing so would interfere with the case.
This is part of the reason Tierna Unruh-Enos started her podcast. Now the managing editor and associate publisher of The Paper, Albuquerque’s new alternative weekly news publication, she was a journalist at local ABC affiliate KOAT when the bodies were found. She said the media covered the investigation extensively for about a year as it got national and international attention. But then interest died off and now it only really gets dusted off about once a year for anniversary stories.
“Watching this whole thing for the past 11 years, I just thought, there is a different way to tell the story,” she said. “I don’t want to just keep rehashing the same details over and over and over again that just don’t really take anyone anywhere. I want to talk to the families — a lot of these women had children, and those children are now adults or teenagers. And, you know, let’s talk to them and further the story than what was really being done with it.”
She is also seeking to humanize the victims.
“They were not just women who were on the street. They were not just women who were possibly a victim of their lifestyle — although that still hasn’t been proven. They were mothers, they were daughters. And this is a legacy that their children now have to deal with. And I think there’s a lot of people out there who don’t really have a lot of sympathy and kind of just want to move on and put in the past,” she said.
The majority of the women on Ida Lopez’s list of missing sex workers were identified as victims in the West Mesa Murders. But six were not. Felipa Gonzales, Nina Herron, Leah Peebles, Darlene Trujillo, Anna Vigil, and Shawntell Waites were all in their 20s when they disappeared between 2001 and 2005. They would all now be in their 30s or early 40s.
Since 2009, the West Mesa, which was previously open space, has exploded in development. A memorial park was built over the acre where the bodies were found, but the other 95 acres of that lot have gone undeveloped. Unruh-Enos believes it’s only a matter of time, though, before KB Homes finally develops that area as well. Perhaps at that time, more bodies will be found — assuming they’re not already under existing houses.
According to the city of Albuquerque’s website, a reward of up to $100,000 is still being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the murders. The 118th Street Task Force can be reached at 1 (877) 765-8273 or (505) 768-2450.