Who Is the West Mesa Bone Collector?

Five years after Albuquerque's "crime of the century," police have few clues about what happened to 11 women found buried on the West Mesa.

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Sep 9 2014, 5:00am

Workers excavate a crime scene on the outskirts of Albuquerque, NM, where the remains of 11 bodies have been discovered. Photo by Sergio Salvador / AP

The story of the West Mesa murders begins outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a high desert plateau that rises up over the Rio Grande. Sun Belt sprawl and subdivisions with names like Desert Spring Flower and Paradise Hills give way to dry sand, tumbleweeds, and trailer parks. It’s desolate on this part of the West Mesa. There’s a municipal shooting range, a speedway, the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center. There’s also a crime scene where, in 2009, 11 decomposed corpses were found buried in shallow graves.

It took the Albuquerque police weeks to uncover all the bodies—which were scattered over a 92-acre swath of land owned by a home developer—and nearly a year to identify the victims. All of them were women between the ages of 15 and 32, and most were Hispanic. The women had gone missing between 2001 and 2005—long before the bodies were uncovered. Ten of the 11 victims were known prostitutes and drug users, a fact that police pointed out early and often. One victim, 22-year-old Michelle Valdez, had been four months pregnant. The 11th woman, 15-year-old Jamie Barela, had disappeared in 2004. She had gone to the park with her cousin, Barela’s mother told reporters, leaving the house with her curling iron still on. Her body was the last to be identified. Her cousin, 27-year-old Evelyn Salazar, had been identified two months prior. A second 15-year-old, Syllania Edwards, a runaway from Lawton, Oklahoma, was the only African American victim and the only one with ties outside New Mexico.

It was the most horrific murder case Albuquerque had ever seen. While serial killers are not uncommon in the Western United States, New Mexico’s largest city had never dealt with one before. Police promised the families of the victims that solving the murders was a top priority, and initially that seemed to be the case. Investigators assembled a crack team of detectives, bringing in FBI profilers and working with law enforcement agencies around the state to try to figure out how the bones of 11 women had wound up in the desert. Now it’s more than five years after the first body was discovered. Police still have no official suspects, and Albuquerque has largely forgotten about what was once known as the city’s “crime of the century.”

“There hasn’t been the degree of public fear and alarm that you might expect. There has been very little publicity,” said Dirk Gibson, a professor at the University of New Mexico who has written two books on serial killers. “There’s a sense of physical remoteness—this place was very removed. A combination of remoteness of time and geography made it so that there has been little pressure on the police to investigate.”

Police file photos of the 11 West Mesa victims

To be fair, there wasn’t much for the cops to go on. Officially, the cause of death for all 11 women was “homicidal violence,” but the truth was, medical examiners and forensic experts couldn’t determine how the victims had been killed. No witnesses have come forward, and there was virtually no forensic evidence at the burial site, which meant that there was nothing to tie the victims together except their shared grave and “high-risk lifestyles.”

There were leads, of course. First there were the photos, released by the Albuquerque Police Department at the end of 2010, of seven women who cops believed could be linked to the West Mesa murders. Two of the women were later discovered to be alive, and one had apparently died of natural causes. Police have never said where the photos originated, or whether anything has come of the tip. Then there was Ron Erwin, a photographer from Joplin, Missouri, and a frequent visitor of the New Mexico State Fair, which is held near the burial site. But after confiscating hundreds of photos and documents from his home and businesses, police couldn’t tie him to the murders. (Erwin, rather obviously, later told a local newspaper that he was devastated by the serial-killer suspicions.) Later that year, George Walker, a private investigator, started receiving cryptic, taunting phone calls and emails from someone claiming to have information about the killer, but the lead still hasn’t panned out. Over the years, other names have popped up in the investigation—mostly local pimps and serial wife beaters, some dead or in jail—but nothing has stuck.

“There’s a possibility the killer has come and gone. Serial killers move; that’s why they don’t get caught,” Walker said. “If he didn’t get caught, I’m sure there are more victims somewhere. He could possibly be on the loose in New Mexico or another state.”

Family members of Michelle Valdez grieve at a memorial site. Photo by Adolphe Pierre-Louis /Albuquerque Journal /AP

The investigation revealed the dark side of Albuquerque, a sleepy Southwestern city of half a million people, where the rate of violent crime is more than double the national average and where women of questionable morals can vanish into thin air without anyone giving a shit. In 2007, two years before the crime was uncovered, an Albuquerque reporter discovered that the city’s lone missing-persons detective had compiled names of 16 prostitutes who had disappeared in the city between 2001 and 2006—the first sign of a serial killer. But to the police, it seemed, it was nothing but a list of missing hookers. Eventually, nine of those women were identified at the West Mesa boneyard. The whereabouts of the other seven remain unknown, leaving open the question of whether the killer might have had other burial sites—and whether he may still be out there, killing. “It’s logical that there may be more than one grave site,” said Gibson. “Albuquerque is filled with tons of these types of sites. If police discovered this one, which clearly had been discontinued, maybe there’s another one. I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”

As shocking as the West Mesa serial killings are, they are also not unique. While the number of serial killings in the US has declined in recent decades, those that do occur disproportionately target women. According to FBI data released in 2011, 70 percent of serial-killer victims since 1985 have been women, mostly in their 20s or 30s. “The majority of victims of serial killers are what I call the less dead—as far as the public is concerned, they are less alive because they tend to be the marginalized groups in society—in this case drug addicts and prostitutes,” said Steven Egger, who teaches criminology at the University of Houston–Clear Lake, in Texas, and has consulted for the FBI. “There’s an attitude that permeates the press and the public that reduces pressure on police to solve the crime, at least initially, until you’ve got a number of victims.”

Police in Albuquerque say that they are still investigating the West Mesa serial killings, known officially as the 118th Street Homicides. Detectives have given few details about the status of the investigation in recent years, and a spokeswoman for the police department declined to comment for this story. The Albuquerque cops have also had their own internal problems to deal with: In late July, the city announced that the Department of Justice would monitor the Albuquerque Police Department, after a civil investigation found that a pattern of excessive use of force, including deadly force, by officers resulted in 20 fatalities between 2009 and 2012, and concluded that the majority of these shootings were unconstitutional. Albuquerque and New Mexico law enforcement officials have also been racked by sex scandals in recent years, including accusations that a state police officer and an Albuquerque police officer sexually assaulted prostitutes.

In the absence of any official details or updates, though, everyone has his own theory about the West Mesa bone collector, ranging from dirty cops to drug gangs. Regardless of the answer, it seems that both the killer—or killers—and Albuquerque have moved on. “Albuquerqueans don’t relate to the victims; they think they’re just a bunch of hookers and drug addicts,” Gibson said. “Police budgets are stretched thin. There’s so little money, and there are so many crimes. Investigating a ten-year-old crime where the police think that the victims had it coming—there’s just no incentive for that.”

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