ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Several years after the bodies of 11 women were found in a mass grave on the outskirts of Albuquerque, residents are haunted by the idea that a serial killer is likely still on the loose.
Maria Elena Salinas explores the issue of why women from the city went missing at an alarming rate between 2004 and 2005 in “Lost Girls of the Mesa,” a new episode of The Real Story With Maria Elena Salinas on Investigation Discovery.
It was early February 2009 when a woman walking her dog in a field atop a mesa found a human femur. Authorities eventually recovered 11 sets of remains from the 92-acre site.
The victims of what the media dubbed the “West Mesa Murders” were Jamie Barela, Monica Candelaria, Victoria Chavez, Virginia Cloven, Syllania Edwards, Cinnamon Elks, Doreen Marquez, Julie Nieto, Veronica Romero, Evelyn Salazar, and Michelle Valdez. All were women between the ages of 15 and 32, and had a history of drug abuse, prostitution, or both.
Police suspect that the bodies were all buried by the same person or persons — and could be a serial killer, who has been nicknamed the “West Mesa Bone Collector.” Investigators also had a theory that the murders could be linked to the annual state fair, which attracts large numbers of sex workers to the area in the fall.
Satellite imagery taken between 2003 and 2005 shows tire marks and patches of disturbed soils in the area where the remains were recovered. By 2006, development had encroached on the area, and soon after, the site was disturbed, buried, and platted for residential development.
After the housing collapse in 2008, the developer built a retaining wall to channel water to a pond built in the approximate area of the burial site, inadvertently exposing bones to the surface.
Along the way, the investigation took many other bizarre twists and turns — and several potential suspects have been identified. Two men who initially attracted police attention were Fred Reynolds, a pimp; and Lorenzo Montoya, who lived less than three miles from the burial site. Reynolds died of natural causes in January 2009. In 2006, Montoya strangled a teenager at his trailer and then was shot to death by the victim’s boyfriend. Police released grainy images taken from sex tapes found in Montoya’s home in hopes that someone might recognize the women.
In 2010, police searched several properties in Joplin, Missouri, associated with a local photographer who had spent time in Albuquerque. They reportedly confiscated hundreds of photos, but no one was ever charged in connection with the murders as a result.
Joseph Blea, the “Mid-School Rapist” who broke into the homes of 13- to 15-year-old girls who lived near McKinley Middle School in Albuquerque and raped them, was another possible suspect. Blea was sentenced to 36 years in June 2015, at 58 years of age.
Despite the obstacles and frustrations, police insist that they will not give up on finding the women’s killer — or killers.
A reward of up to $100,000 is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible.
To learn more about this case, watch the “Lost Girls of the Mesa” episode of Investigation Discovery’s The Real Story With Maria Elena Salinas on ID GO now!
Main photo: The Real Story With Maria Elena Salinas [screenshot/Investigation Discovery]