100th Episode! The West Mesa Murders
Picture the scene: It's a beautiful day outside, you're walking your dog and soaking in the sunshine, it's relatively peaceful and quiet, and you're enjoying your time out with your dog. What could possibly ruin this moment. Well what if your dog started acting strange, pulling you towards a spot in the dirt. He keeps pawing at it and won't leave it alone. Eventually he unearths a bone. No big deal you find animal bones all the time on your walks. But this bone seems different, it's too long, too big to be an animal bone. You get kind of creeped out. But has that feeling completely ruined the moment, maybe not yet but it's about to get worse. On a whim you decide to take a picture of the bone and send it to your sister who is a nurse. Your good time is officially ruined when your sister confirms your suspicions, the bone is, in fact, not animal, it's human. A human femur to be exact. This is the exact scenario that led to the discovery of one of the, if not the, largest crime scenes in American history and a series of crimes that would as of yet, go unsolved.
Christine Ross was the unfortunate soul that came across the body in the scenario described at the outset of the episode. She was walking her dog Ruka in an area that had recently been cleared out for a new neighborhood to be built. After the bone was found she called the police and that's when things get crazy! So let's get further into this story!
The West Mesa is an elevated landmass lying west of the Rio Grande stretching from south of Albuquerque northward to Bernalillo in the state of New Mexico. A large portion of West Mesa is part of Petroglyph National Monument and is bisected by Interstate 40 and Historic Route 66. There are numerous subdivisions with new homes being built on the lower portion of the West Mesa as the City of Albuquerque continues to expand further to the west. Further west on the mesa are the mobile home communities of Pajarito, located to the south of I-40, and Lost Horizon, located about 1/2 mile north of I-40. The bodies of 11 women and one unborn child would be uncovered in West Mesa. It would take a year to identify all of the victims. Police would follow many leads but to no avail. We're going to look at the victims then discuss the most likely suspects and evidence did them being there killer and even discuss how this may be connected to a small sex trafficking ring that could be part of a larger global ring!
The story may start earlier than you think. In the early 2000s, in an area called The War Zone, a tumor began to spread about a killer in albuquerque. There were stories of a killer roaming the streets and murdering sex workers. The war zone is an area now known as the international district. It is one of the most diverse areas of the city. It is also one of the poorest areas in the city and has a high crime rate. A 1991 article from the Albuquerque Journal described East Central as "a loose-jointed carnival of sex, drugs and booze" with drug dealers and prostitutes operating openly. In 1997, the city put up barricades in the neighborhood to make it harder for criminals to get in and out. Eventually, thanks in part to efforts by neighborhood residents, the crime rate decreased and the barricades were removed. In 2009, residents who resented the War Zone name persuaded city leaders to officially re-brand the area as the International District, highlighting its diverse community rather than crime. The first International Festival was held later that year. Despite these changes, crime has continued to be an issue in the neighborhood.
It was here in 2004 that Cinnamon Elks, a sex worker that often worked in the war zone, came to hear a crazy story. She had told her friends there was a dirty cop murdering and decapitating sex workers and burying their bodies on the West Mesa. Soon after she related this story she disappeared.
Years before the bodies are found, police detective Ida Lopez found that a number of sex workers were going missing. She began to compile a list, which included Cinnamon Elks, and began to try to bring notice of the issue to light. Lopez had a list of 16 women that had gone missing. When the body's were found Lopez feared the bodies were the same women on her list. She was partially correct, 10 of the 11 women identified we in fact on her list.
For homicide investigators, the case posed challenges from the start, said Dirk Gibson, a communications and journalism professor at the University of New Mexico who has authored numerous books on serial killings. Years had passed from the time the women and girls disappeared, probably limiting available evidence.
“You can’t have a colder cold case,” Gibson said. “In this case, there was almost nothing but bones.”
Let's take a look at the victims. All but one of the women were sex workers from New Mexico. Many were known to live hard lives. Several were mothers. None of them deserved what happened to them.
Jamie Barela, 15, was last seen with her 23-year-old cousin Evelyn Salazar heading to a park at San Mateo and Gibson SE in April 2004. Neither woman was ever seen again until their bones turned up in the mass grave site on the West Mesa in 2009. Jamie was the final skeleton to be identified, almost a year after the first bone was found. But Jamie’s mom believed investigators would find her daughter’s body long before she was named. Unlike the other West Mesa victims, Barela had no known prostitution or drug arrests.
Evelyn Salazar was reported missing on April 3, 2004, by her family. She was 23 when she disappeared. She was the 10th victim to be identified, and her 15-year-old cousin Jamie Barela was the final one to be identified.
The two were last seen together at a family gathering and then went to a park at San Mateo and Gibson. Salazar liked camping and outdoor activities, was a good cook and taught her daughter how to roller skate, according to her obituary.
The last time Dan Valdez saw his daughter Michelle, he asked her to not stay away too long. Michelle Valdez had a daughter who she cared for deeply, and had a big heart, Dan Valdez said.
“Michelle was quite a gal, she would give you the shirt off of your back if you needed it,” he said. “She was good-hearted, kind, and didn’t deserve what she got.” He said he couldn’t remember exactly when she got involved with drugs. But she started disappearing for days, sometimes a week at a time. Later it turned to months. When she did show up, he would give her small sums of money — even though he knew she would use it on drugs — in the hopes that she would come back again.
Eventually, she stopped altogether. Dan Valdez reported her missing in February 2005, when she was 22. Her bones were the second set to be identified in late-February 2009 after investigators started digging for bodies. They also discovered the remains of Michelle Valdez’s 4-month-old unborn baby. Michelle had dreamed of one day being a singer, her mother said, or maybe a lawyer like her aunt. “Drug addiction certainly wasn’t the lifestyle she wanted,” Jackson said. “She wanted help, but she didn’t have money or insurance, so it was very hard for her to get it.”
Veronica Romero was 27 when she was reported missing by her family on Valentine’s Day 2004.
Her family laid her to rest in July 2009 after her body was one of the 11 unearthed. “We’re putting her to rest finally, but considering what’s been done, and now we’re finding out more of what’s happened to her, and it’s sad,” family member Desiree Gonzales told KOB-TV at the time. “She was hurt real bad.”
Julie Nieto grew up in Albuquerque’s South Valley and Los Lunas, and loved chile peppers and jump rope. She later went to Job Corps, which teaches under-priveleged young people different professions. Her mom, Eleanor Griego, said Nieto started doing drugs when she was around 19. She tried to get her treatment to no avail. Griego says she last saw Nieto, then 23, in August 2004 at Griego’s dad’s house. She left behind a young son, who Griego said she had doted over. Two years after Nieto went missing, her sister Valerie Nieto was found dead in a motel on Central Avenue after overdosing. “She couldn’t handle it. She was depressed all the time, crying all the time,” Griego said. “That was the only sister she ever had.”
Doreen Marquez loved jewelry and fashionable clothes and had a huge personality, according to her friends and family. She went to West Mesa High School where she was a cheerleader, and later had two daughters who she was devoted to, throwing them extravagant birthday parties. But as the girls got older, Marquez’s boyfriend was jailed and she turned to drugs. She spent less and less time with her daughters, leaving them with her sister or other family members.
“I had kicked her out of my house. That was the last time I saw her,” Julie “Bubbles” Gonzales, Marquez’s sister, said in an interview last year. “I just told her, ‘You know, it’s better if you just go. Whenever you feel like you’re not going to use, or you just want somewheres to come and eat, shower, or whatever, my door is open.’ And she never came back.” Garcia said the last time she saw Marquez, she told her she could help her deal with her addiction. But Marquez refused. Unlike many of the other women whose bones were found on the West Mesa, Marquez didn’t have any prostitution arrests. But police believe she engaged in it nonetheless.
When Diana Wilhelm didn’t hear from her daughter on her birthday in August 2004, she knew something was wrong. But it would take nearly five years for police to confirm what Wilhelm already believed — her daughter Cinnamon Elks was dead. Elks, who was 32 when she went missing, was the third of the West Mesa victims to be identified after the first bone was found in early 2009. She, like many of the others, had a string of prostitution and solicitation arrests — 19 total, with 14 convictions. She was friends with at least three of the other victims — Gina Michelle Valdez, Victoria Chavez and Julie Nieto.
Syllannia Edwards stands apart from the other West Mesa victims. She had no known friends or family, and was a runaway from foster care in Lawton, Okla. Edwards, who was 15, was the only African American victim. She never knew her father, and last saw her mother when she was 5. Police believe she may have been a “circuit girl,” meaning she was traveling along the I-40 corridor as a prostitute. Early in the investigation, a tipster told investigators Edwards was seen in Denver in the spring and summer of 2004. The tipster said she had been at a motel on East Colfax Street in Denver. “They were high-prostitution areas,” then-APD spokeswoman Nadine Hamby said in 2009. Police believe she may have been travelling in a group. “We’ve received information that Syllannia was associated with three other females and that she may have gone by the aliases Chocolate or Mimi,” Hamby said.
Early on, investigators hoped Edwards’ background, because it’s different from the other victims, would provide the details needed to crack the case.
Virginia Cloven grew up in a small trailer heated by a wood-burning stove in Los Chavez. She was funny, loved doing her makeup and was a favorite at school. Tragedy struck the family when she was in high school. Her brother was shot and killed in a homicide that would later be ruled self-defense.
Virginia Cloven ran away from home a week later, when she was 17. Another brother ran away too. “They said they couldn’t stand it anymore,” Robert Cloven said. At first Virginia Cloven lived with her grandfather in Albuquerque, then moved in with a boyfriend. He got hit by a car and went into a coma, and soon Virginia Cloven had lost her home and was living on the streets of Albuquerque’s International District. One year, she called her dad asking what he wanted for his birthday. He asked her to clear up her citations and then they were supposed to meet in Albuquerque. They last heard from her in June 2004. She called to say she had a new boyfriend who had just gotten out of prison and that she was probably going to marry him. “We said we’d like to meet him, but we never heard from her again,” Robert Cloven said in 2009. “After that, everything just went dead.” Robert Cloven reported his daughter missing four months later, in October 2004. She was 23 at the time.
Victoria Chavez, 26, was the first woman whose bones were identified after they were found on the mesa — before the public learned the women were likely murdered by a serial killer. “To have them come and knock on my door, I was devastated,” stepfather Ambrose Saiz said at a memorial event in 2009. “I never thought it would end like this. I just had that hope.” Chavez’s mother reported her missing in March 2005 after she hadn’t seen her in more than a year. The mother also said in the missing persons report that Chavez was on probation and was a “known drug user and prostitute.” She had five prostitution convictions, according to court records.
Sheriff’s deputies investigating the disappearance of Monica Candelaria in 2003 heard from her friends that she had been killed and buried on the mesa. It turns out, those friends were right. When the 21-year-old never showed up, detectives turned it over to the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office cold case unit. The case stayed cold until she was identified as one of the women found on the mesa in 2009. She was last seen near Atrisco and Central in Southwest Albuquerque. Deputies said she lived a “high-risk lifestyle” and may have had gang ties. She had been convicted of prostitution once, according to court records. But her obituary highlights a happier side. “Monica enjoyed laughing, joking, taking care of babies, and spending time with her family,” the obituary reads. “She will be remembered as a loving daughter, mother, granddaughter, niece, cousin and friend who will be truly missed.”
11 women who all list their lives too soon. Most likely in a terrible manor. The police have not revealed the causes of death of the women. It was difficult to figure out how the women died and they are keeping that nugget to themselves to use as a gage of the beauty of claims and tips.
After several years of nothing some suspects started popping up. Some actually fit the profile very well. Even still no official suspects have been named. Here's a look at some of the suspects that police have checked out.
Lou Fred Reynolds, who police said was a pimp, died of natural causes on Jan. 2, 2009. Police found pictures of several West Mesa victims at his home but no physical evidence linking him to the murder. Reynolds, of Albuquerque, was arrested in 2001 and in 1998 on suspicion of promoting prostitution. Reynold was supposedly very focused on some of the West Mesa victims back when they were still missing. Lori Gallegos and Amy Reid both have connections to the mystery. Reid's sister and many friends started to disappear around the same time. Gallegos's close friend Doreen Marquez vanished in 2003. Gallegos said her search led her to Reynolds who supposedly ran an escort service. "When I met Fred Reynolds I wasn't looking for a suspect of a murder case at that point I was looking for my friend that was missing," said Gallegos. In October 2008, he showed her pictures of Doreen. He also had photos of missing women he claimed he was looking for. "He told me he was a former heroin addict himself and this was the reason he wanted to help the women that worked for him, he wanted them to have a good life," said Gallegos. Reynolds passed away a couple months later from health complications. What came as a surprise to Gallegos was Fred Reynolds was one of the names initially mentioned as a person of interest in the case. Reid who also knew Reynolds and considered him a friend. She said there is no way he was involved. "He wasn't violent and he wasn't abusive and he wasn't in anyway a killer," said Reid. Reid said Reynolds was someone who truly cared about the missing women and wanted to help find them.
Another really suspect was Ron Erwin. Erwin has a connection to I've of our previous episodes. He is a photographer from Joplin Missouri. Erwin fell under a cloud of suspicion in the serial murders case investigators from New Mexico showed up at his properties in Joplin armed with search warrants. In the first interview he has granted about the matter, Erwin told the Joplin Globe he does not know how he became a suspect in the case, only that the experience has resembled a nightmare. “There’s an old ‘Twilight Zone’ episode,” Erwin said, “where a man wakes up to the world he’s always known and suddenly nobody recognizes him and he’s running around trying to say, ‘Don’t you remember me? I’ve known you for 40 years,’ and all this.
“Well, that’s what my life’s been in that time,” he said during the interview at the office of Joplin attorney Phil Glades.
“I don’t know how it all got to that stage before it suddenly exploded that morning,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Erwin spent the better part of a year trying to prove his innocence behind the scenes. He hired lawyers in Joplin and New Mexico to advise him, even though he has never been charged with the murders, and he declined all interview requests.Erwin went to Alexandria, Va., in December to have the polygraph exam administered by former FBI polygrapher Barry Colvert. Glades said Colvert determined that Erwin was not being deceptive in his answers regarding the West Mesa murders. The results of that exam were provided to Albuquerque investigators a few months later when they asked, as a last request, if he’d be willing to take a polygraph. While no real reason was given to the public about why Erwin was a suspect, it is said that he was seen often at the fair in Albuquerque where the women were known to frequent and men were known to pick up prostitutes. Erwin and his attorneys provided the Globe with a copy of the final page of an Albuquerque police report dated June 26 of this year that concludes: “Ron Erwin is not a viable suspect in the killing of the 11 victims located at the 188th Street S.W. site.”
The paragraph specifies dates in 2004 when victims Veronica Romero, Evelyn Salazar and Jamie Barela are known to have disappeared. The report states that detectives were able to verify that Erwin was in Joplin on both the day that Romero vanished and the day Salazar and Barela turned up missing.
“I believe there weren’t too many specific dates in this case, but those were two of them,” Erwin said. “And I was able to account for all my days in 2004.”
“Why he was a suspect — that’s all in sealed warrants, that’s still part of our pending investigation,” said Sgt. Tricia Hoffman, spokeswoman for the Albuquerque Police Department, in a phone interview. “But, at this point, we’ve been able to eliminate him as a viable suspect.”
So at least they know who didn't do it.
Scott Lee Kimball is a convicted serial killer from Boulder County, Colorado. He is serving a 70-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2009 to the murders of 5 people. All four victims died between January 2003 and August 2004, while Kimball was on "supervised release" after a prior check fraud conviction, serving as an FBI informant. In December 2010, Kimball told a cousin that he had been proposed as a suspect in the West Mesa murders in New Mexico, which were committed during the same 2003-2005 time period. He denied involvement. Even though he's denied involvement, he has boasted about committing other murders although authorities have yet to uncover direct evidence to back up his claims.
Another suspect, and one of the most viable ones was Lorenzo Montoya, we say was as he was killed while in the act of committing another murder. When Lorenzo Montoya was killed in 2006, the bodies of the West Mesa victims had not yet been found. Police Chief Ray Schultz said at the time that police had been looking into him in connection to prostitutes who had vanished from the city.
He has since been named as a possible suspect in the West Mesa deaths.
That’s likely because, like another possible suspect Joseph Blea, who we'll get to in a bit, Montoya cruised the East Central corridor and was known to be violent.
His first prostitution-related arrest was in 1998 when he picked up an undercover detective posing as a prostitute. He offered her $40.
She took him to a motel room near Washington and Central, where officers arrested him.
That apparently didn’t deter him.
In 1999, vice detectives watched him pick up a prostitute near Central and San Mateo and followed him to a dark dead-end road near the airport.
Police believe they caught him in the act as he was trying to rape and strangle her.
Montoya had apparently never planned to pay her — he only had $2 in his wallet.
He was arrested, but the case was later dismissed.
About four years later, he was still at it. Detectives watched him pick up a prostitute on Central Ave. and arrested him. The woman told officers he paid her $15.
By that time, Montoya already had a history of violence.
According to a domestic violence form his girlfriend filled out after an alleged assault, Montoya repeatedly beat her.
The woman said he had also done “gross things to me,” but didn’t detail what they were in the document.