West Mesa Bone Collector
Part One: The Pit
On February 2nd, 2009, a woman walking her dog would stumble upon the largest crime scene in Albuquerque history. Before long, police had begun excavating what would be the largest crime scene in Albuquerque history. Within a month, they had identified four of the victims (all were sex workers that had gone missing years prior) but several more remained unidentified... as did their collective killer...
A few years ago, my wife and I began the process of moving from the west coast to the east coast. We were leaving California and headed out to Georgia, and made plans to road trip the entire distance. The road trip itself was a lot of fun - we got to see a large chunk of America, which we had never seen before - but it was also incredibly daunting.
Nowadays, with the modern advent of public transportation and air travel, we don't really consider just how huge America is as a country. At least, I didn't until we made it out of California and started heading east, through states like Arizona and New Mexico. There, the desolate terrain seemed to swallow us whole... guiding us through hundreds of miles of almost pure nothingness.
New Mexico, in particular, felt like a foreign land to me. We would drive for hours, seeming to pass through vast areas that were totally absent of any other human beings.
I know that, for many, the mere mention of New Mexico brings to mind the desert terrain that is depicted in shows like Breaking Bad... and honestly, that's not too far away from the truth. While the state does have many beautiful and scenic areas - as well as heavily populated cities, such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe - New Mexico itself can seem almost hostile at times, and that really adds to the desolate aura that attracts those that live there (many of whom like to be left alone, and who enjoy the setting offered by the dry climate).
However, this also contributes to a larger problem endemic of humanity: in large areas of land with nobody around, it can be easy to get away with virtually anything. Perhaps, even murder.
That is the case of the story we are addressing today: a serial killer that struck in the region of Albuquerque, who abandoned the bodies of their victims in the bleak and deserted region known as West Mesa. A serial killer that, years later, has yet to be identified.
This is the story of the West Mesa Bone Collector.
West Mesa is an elevated landmass on the western side of Albuquerque - located within city limits. The mesa stretches over a dozen miles - all the way up to Bernalillo, a small town on the very northern edge of the ABQ metropolitan area. While West Mesa borders the Rio Grande floodplain, it is also included in the Colorado Plateau - nicknamed "Red Rock Country" - a vast expanse of desert that consumes a large chunk of the surrounding states (Colorado, Utah, and Arizona... in addition to New Mexico itself).
Decades ago, West Mesa was little more than the sun-baked western outskirt of Albuquerque. But in the 1980's - as the city itself began to grow, and rapid expansion started spreading outwards - West Mesa saw some significant growth. The population of this region jumped from roughly 40,000 people back in 1980 to roughly 200,000 people today.
Because of that, the area experienced a period of rapid growth, leading to the swift development of the region. Tumbleweeds made way for the numerous housing projects that began to crop up in the 1990's and early 2000's. The inclusion of two major highways - Interstate 40 and Route 66 - only helped attract visitors and businesses, leading to West Mesa's huge population influx over the past 30 years.
Up until the mid-2000's, things seemed to be progressing steadily in West Mesa, with the Albuquerque region continuing to expand westward, and new housing projects peppering the landscape on a regular basis. However, that would come crashing to a halt in the mid-2000's: right around 2006, in fact, when housing prices started their steep decline. This would lead to the collapse of the American housing bubble in 2008, which caused the entire real estate market as a whole to fall in on itself. Numerous companies folded as a result, and the Recession - as it is now known - led to a screeching halt for many developers in the West Mesa region.
New Mexico state as a whole was directly impacted by the recession; this included an insurmountable numbers of job lost (which the state's residents have yet to recover from more than a decade later). But the impact was felt most immediately by real estate companies and the contractors they hired to build or work on their developments. Many had to cease their work entirely and close up shop as a result of the economic downturn, and numerous housing projects were cancelled (including those that were already in the process of being built).
The end result was a number of half-baked communities; many of which had already started being built, but were now left in-limbo as the developers tried to figure out their next step. Some Albuquerque residents now lived in neighborhoods with just a handful of houses, while the plots of land next to them remained cleared for building, but... were now vacant and totally dormant. Many in the region of West Mesa, in particular, would live like this for the next several months... including those that lived near 118th Street, on the southwest corner of Albuquerque itself.
Christine Ross had just moved into this region of West Mesa in the Fall of 2008. She lived in a newly-built house with her husband and dog, both of whom she took regular walks with almost every evening.
The walks Christine took with her husband and dog took her through an area full of homes that had been in the planning stages; but, at the time, were nothing more than flattened earth and cement blocks. KB Homes, a real estate developer based out of Albuquerque, had purchased nearly 100 acres of land in the hopes of turning it into a sprawling subdivision. But that fell apart entirely when the housing market collapsed, and the only reminder of their plan was the turned-up soil that now served as a walking path.
On February 2nd, 2009 - a Monday - Christine and her husband took their dog, Ruca, for a walk. Ruca was a 3-year-old Shar-Pei/Lab mix, who - like all dogs - curiously sniffed at objects that caught his fancy. As they were walking in the area of these houses that had not materialized, Ruca came upon an object jutting out of the ground.
Christine and her husband thought little of it at the time, assuming it to be like any of Ruca's previous finds. But as they got a better look at the item, they grew concerned: it appeared be a human bone.
Christine snapped a photo of the bone with her cell phone, which she then sent off to her sister, who was a nurse. A short time later, Christine and her husband heard back, and heard that the item likely was a real human bone. So they then phoned police with their suspicions, and officers arrived at the scene shortly thereafter to document the find.
It wasn't long before police confirmed that the bone was indeed human: some reports have listed the bone as a femur, while others proclaim it a human rib bone. Nonetheless, the bone itself was very real, and unlikely to be the only one in the area. Police set out to uncover the rest of the person's body, hoping to identify them and (hopefully) determine whether or not an investigation was warranted.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, they were about to unearth the largest crime scene in Albuquerque history...
More than two dozen detectives began collaborating with anthropologists, medical investigators, and volunteers in an effort to comb the area, slowly excavating the region around this single bone's discovery - in an area just west of Albuquerque's 118th Street.
Because several homes had been prepped in the area, the dirt was already graded and leveled, meaning that a large tract of land had already been dug up and disturbed. This provided quite the challenge for investigators, but within weeks, they had worked through dozens of feet of soil, looking for any trace of bone or bone fragments.
Not surprisingly, they did find bones - some of which were as far as 15 feet underground - but the amount of bones they would find truly did surprise them.
Many of the bones that police would discover in this extensive dig had been left partially intact; but the others had been scattered by the work done on the failed housing developments. Pieces of equipment meant to dig up and level the dirt had moved around several of these bones, and scavenging animals had likely contributed somewhat. The end result was a morbid puzzle on a grand scale, which would require weeks - if not months -for medical experts to piece back together into completed skeletons.
It quickly became clear to investigators that there was more than just one body in this area. Several bodies had been buried in the same vicinity as one another... something that was unlikely to be a coincidence. In fact, it was most likely the act of a single killer, who had used this once-isolated region as their dumping ground; but the public wouldn't know that yet. In fact, more than a week would pass before police would even officially announce that the remains were human, and had been buried somewhat-recently.
When this announcement came, it came with a catch. Police had already identified one of the victims - who had been missing for several years at this point - but the circumstances of her disappearance would be anything but clear.
Victoria Ann Chavez was a 26-year-old mother of two, who - over a short-yet-tragic life - had fallen onto the dark path of sex work and drug use.
At the time of her 2004 disappearance, Victoria had been in and out of jail and prison on multiple prostitution charges, and was a known drug user, whose issues caused her to have repeated run-ins with the law; primarily, through a probation officer that struggled to keep her on the straight-and-narrow.
Victoria was officially declared missing by her mother in March of 2005; who - at that point in time - had not seen Victoria in over a year (neither had other family members or loved ones). She seems to have made the perfect victim for this killer, as she was someone who was battling a number of personal demons, and wasn't even noticed to be missing for some time after her disappearance.
For roughly four years, Victoria Chavez would be labeled a missing person. It is unknown exactly what kind of investigation went into trying to locate her, but due to the circumstances of her case, she wasn't reported missing for several months - maybe even over a year after disappearing. There unfortunately wasn't much for police to do to help find her, as sad as that is to say.
This leads us to February 2nd, 2009, when the remains of Victoria Chavez were pulled from the excavation site in West Mesa. Hers was the first body to be found by investigators, and was said to have been buried just 18 inches below the dirt, without any clothing or personal items with her. In fact, her remains would only be identified because her family had submitted dental records to law enforcement when they reported her missing back in 2005.
Victoria was believed to have been killed and buried in the mesa sometime in 2004, but an exact determination of time would be impossible to make. The remains were too badly decomposed and too much time had passed; in fact, a cause-of-death would also be impossible to determine because of these two factors. Officials could only offer up a vague estimate of when she had been killed (2004 - 2005), which was based off of the time period that Victoria's loved ones had noted her disappearance and reported her missing.
Victoria would be the first woman found in this expansive dig site, and the first to be identified by police. But she was by no means the last.
Following the discovery of Victoria Chavez' remains and her subsequent identification, police continued their exploration and excavation of the area. They would begin to discover an almost-overwhelming number of bones, hoping against all hope that maybe - just maybe - some were not human or perhaps belonged to some ancient burial site. They would submit these bones to the local medical examiner, who would test the bones to see where they had come from - a process that could reportedly take months.
In the meantime, investigators - again, aided by anthropologists and medical investigators - continued the excavation of West Mesa. Within days, they would find proof of other killings having taken place, and more bodies being abandoned in the same area.
On February 21st, 2009 - a Saturday - police found the bodies of two additional females, and both were set off to the M.E. for identification. Then, just two days later - February 23rd - they found yet another body: a young woman, who - in a tragic twist - had been pregnant at the time of her death. A decomposed fetus was found within her remains, and the woman was believed to have just entered the second trimester of her pregnancy, due to the size of the unborn baby. Tests would later confirm that the child had been conceived roughly four months before the woman was murdered, and the victim herself might not have even been aware she was pregnant at the time of her death.
Despite the obvious tragedy of this find, it was believed that this detail - the woman being pregnant - could help expedite the process of identifying the victim. Within days, that belief became fact when police officially identified her, confirming that another missing person from the area had been killed years prior.
Gina Michelle Valdez - who would become known primarily as Michelle, her middle name - was born on August 1st, 1982. She was the oldest of three sisters, who all shared a set of parents who loved them very much. Unfortunately, Michelle's parents were often unable to keep up with her lifestyle choices as she entered her teenage years.
Michelle would become pregnant at a very early age, giving birth to a daughter that she loved dearly. A son would follow a couple of years later, and Michelle would try her hardest to be a good mother to both of them - even as the rest of her life started to unravel around her.
Michelle eventually fell in with the wrong crowd, where sex work and drug use was commonplace, but her family says that doesn't diminish who she was as a person. In a 2009 interview with the Albuquerque Journal, Michelle's mother Karen Jackson said about her daughter:
"She was a very fun-loving girl, she always had a smile on her face, and she would just brighten up a room with her bubbly personality. Everybody has faults, and hers was drugs. But she was still a human being. She was a good big sister; she always looked out for her sisters. And she was a mom who cared about her kids' accomplishments.
"Drug addiction certainly wasn't the lifestyle she wanted. She wanted help, but she didn't have money or insurance, so it was very hard for her to get it."
Drug use started to overwhelm Michelle's life, and she would fall into the repeated pattern of addicts: long periods of silence, truncated by a brief return to family members or other loved ones to ask for money or help (but primarily money). Eventually, Michelle just stopped coming back, and before long, weeks had passed without any of her family members seeing or speaking to her.
In February of 2005 - roughly one month before the previously identified victim, Victoria Chavez, was reported missing - Michelle's father would report the 22-year-old as missing. At the time, he told police about her reported sex work and drug use; neither of which were secrets to law enforcement at the time, as Michelle had a prior conviction related to prostitution. However, even at the time, it was believed that either could have played a factor in her disappearance.
Michelle Valdez would not be seen or heard from again, with her family worrying about her for years. She was classified as a missing person, whose case wasn't being actively investigated. In February of 2009, she was the eighth body to be found in West Mesa, and her remains were found along with her unborn child, who had been conceived roughly four months before their death.
It was unknown when, exactly, Michelle had gone missing. But she was believed to have been killed in the same approximate time frame as the previously-identified victim, Victoria Chavez: sometime between 2004 and 2005.
Now, with two out of the potentially dozen or so bodies having been identified, it was becoming harder for police to avoid saying the obvious; which was, of course, the notion that these victims had likely been targeted by the same offender... a serial killer that had disposed of their victims in the same dumping ground.
Just for reference sake: all of the bones were found in the same 10-by-30-yard patch of ground (which is about the same distance in meters, for you international readers/listeners). Some of the bones had been scattered away from the others, but several of the human remains had been found intact, which meant that they had been minimally disturbed by the construction projects that had dug up and flattened the earth around them. By the time that Michelle Valdez was identified as the second known victim, roughly eight other sets of human remains had been found (bringing the total body count up to ten so far).
The two identified victims (Victoria Chavez and Michelle Valdez) were both women in their mid-20's, who had a similar history of sex work and drug use - both of which provided a clear link to investigators. But beyond that, there was not much that was known to link them, other than a loose personal connection (as the two had been familiar with one another, but it was unknown just how close they had been). Both had been identified via dental records, which police cautioned might not be an option in identifying the rest of the bodies found in West Mesa. After all, one of the bodies was found to have no history of dental work whatsoever, and another set of remains was missing a skull entirely (which in itself would make identification incredibly troublesome).
In a press conference held on February 25th, 2009, Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz declared the West Mesa crime scene "one of the largest crime scenes in Albuquerque history" - a statement he would amend later, when it became clear that this was indeed the largest crime scene in the city's history. During this press conference, he stated about the ongoing investigation:
"We have linked two of the victims with similar lifestyles now. That gives detectives a good place to start. This is where the real work begins. At some point in time, their lives crossed paths... whether it was each other or some other individual who was involved in their deaths."
Chief Schultz seemed to indicate that the victims had been killed by a single offender, but - as journalist Jeff Proctor with the Albuquerque Journal would note at the time - he seemed to shy away from declaring the victims the work of a serial killer. In a statement made later that month, Chief Schultz would tell the public:
"The remains are all old; they've been there a number of years. Had we been finding fresh bodies, I'd be much more concerned. Everybody can be reassured that there's not an active serial killer in Albuquerque actively killing and preying on people."
This final statement did little to ease the fear of sex workers in the region, whose complaints about missing women over the last several years had gone virtually ignored by law enforcement; who now made it seem like victims killed as little as four years ago were ancient history, whose very profession was a reason to dispel them as victims worth worrying about.
This notion that these deaths were only tentatively linked to one another became harder to believe when police announced just days later that they had found an 11th and 12th victim (if we are including Michelle Valdez' unborn child as a victim). Investigators had already begun the process of poring through missing persons investigations involving young women and sex workers dating back to the 1980's (many of which had gone cold almost as soon as they began).
However, due to estimates made by the medical examiner, the bodies that police were finding had been buried for less than a decade. So it was believed that this killer - whoever he was - had likely only been active for a handful of years in the early 2000's. This hypothesis was based on a list of young women that had gone missing in the area between 2001 and 2006: a list whose origins I will detail in the next episode.
At the time, all options would need to be explored by law enforcement, but this hypothesis would later be proven correct. Thankfully, though, the list of missing sex workers from the Albuquerque region made it easy for police to whittle down potential matches, and they were able to quickly identify a 3rd and 4th victim... whose stories sounded all-too-familiar to investigators.
Cinnamon Elks was another young woman that had fallen into the same pitfalls as the prior two victims; but before that, had been a regular young woman with goals and aspirations of her own. Her mother, Diana, would later recall that Cinnamon was as perfect a child as any parent could ever hope for. But she began to experience some trouble in her teenage years, when she started to experiment with drugs, and the issues only escalated from there.
Cinnamon would have two children of her own, whom she loved dearly but wasn't well-equipped to care for. Her drug use quickly spiraled into drug abuse, and she would end up with quite the rap sheet: she would be arrested 19 times for prostitution and/or solicitation (resulting in 14 convictions) and would be arrested 12 times for drug possession (which resulted in 5 additional convictions). Her final arrest came in July of 2004, and that was when she seemed to drop off the map.
Like the other victims, Cinnamon had a habit of turning to her family for financial support, but eventually stopped coming around. This was an absence that was quickly noted, and led to her family fearing the worst.
The month after her last arrest - in August of 2004 - Cinnamon was reported missing by her mother, Diana Wilhelm. Even though Cinnamon had issues in her life, she had always made sure to at least call her mom on her birthday, and when that day came and went without a phone call, her family grew suspicious. When Diana finally went to report her daughter missing, she was told by officers that adults had the right to cut off contact with anyone (even their parents), and - besides - she couldn't even prove that Cinnamon was missing.
A handful of months would pass before a police report could officially be filed (in December of 2004), and the investigation was so delayed that they were unable to make any significant inroads. Cinnamon's family made sure to submit her dental records to police, fearing that they could eventually be used to identify her body.
That is exactly what happened more than four years later, in February of 2009. Cinnamon Elks was the 12th body to be pulled from the West Mesa dig site, and was quickly identified as the oldest victim of this unknown killer (having been approximately 32 years old at the time of her disappearance).
At the time of her identification, Cinnamon's mother - Diana Wilhelm - told police and the public that her daughter had been familiar and/or friendly with the first two identified victims: Victoria Chavez and Michelle Valdez - both of whom she knew well. However, this information would be somewhat-overshadowed by the news that another victim had been identified... and she was another young woman that had been connected to this social circle.
Juliean Cyndie Nieto - more commonly known as "Julie" - was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico to a single mother named Eleanor. She would have one sister named Valerie, whom she would remain incredibly close with throughout her life.
Julie was always incredibly small in stature, even as she matured through adolescence. In fact, her mother Eleanor would have to constantly sew and alter any new clothing just so it would fit.
In her teenage years, Julie gave birth to a son, whom she doted upon and loved intensely. She didn't touch any drugs until she was 19 years old, but her usage quickly grew into a dependency... and the rest of her story is, sadly, ground we've already tread three times over in this episode.
Julie Nieto was last seen by her family in August of 2004, and was reported missing a short time later. Due to her issues - not only with drugs, but with prostitution (which had resulted in four separate convictions) - not much effort was made to find her at the time.
Julie's disappearance punched a hole in the lives of her loved ones, and roughly two years after she went missing, her sister and best friend Valerie die in a drug overdose in an Albuquerque motel; a death that loved ones allege was directly tied to Julie's disappearance.
Julie and Valerie's mother, Eleanor, would become the guardian for both of their sons, but always tried to remind them that she was not their mother. She believed that there was a direct path between Julie's disappearance and Valerie's overdose, telling the Albuquerque Journal about her second daughter's death:
"She couldn't handle it. She was depressed all the time, crying all the time. That was the only sister she ever had."
It wasn't until 2009 that answers were given to Eleanor and the rest of her family, and she was finally able to put her daughter Julie to rest. Less than two years after burying Valerie, she had to do the same for Julie - who was the 4th victim to be identified from the West Mesa, having been pulled from the plot of land that investigators now referred to as "The Pit."
The identification of two more victims brought to total of known murdered women up to four, but several more bodies remained unidentified. Police continued trying to piece together the other women’s remains, while also looking to understand what connected the four women they had already put a name to.
Beyond just being sex workers with known drug issues, the four women had also been familiar with one another. They had worked together (or at least near each other), and had run in the same social circles prior to their disappearances. And, what's more, all four had gone missing in the same period of time: a roughly six month gap between 2004 and 2005.
Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz had already admitted that the women likely met their fate at the hands of a single individual, but continued to refrain from using the phrase "serial killer." From some of his statements, we can surmise that he was afraid using that phrase would cause panic, but he continued to point towards the familiar links between the women: not only the sex work, but the drugs, which provided an investigative avenue of its own.
The investigation would continue trying to learn more about the victims that had already been identified: such as the last time they had been seen, whom they had been dating or working for, etc. But unfortunately, all four had been living a rather transient lifestyle, which made retracing their footsteps roughly five years later a nearly-impossible task. Many of the people that they had lived among had already moved on to other areas of the country, and - in some cases - the people they associated themselves with were other victims. After all, it was believed that these four women had been friends with one another, and likely might have confided in each other at some point.
So investigators continued trying to do what they could to track down any information that was still available, and worked to identify the remaining victims in the process. Seven more women had been found in the West Mesa, but their identities were unknown at this time. Investigators began going back through case files of missing sex workers from the past decade-and-a-half, with some even stretching back to the late 1980's.
As that was going on, the families of the loved ones had to struggle through the grief that now surrounded them. For many, they had been aware that this was a possible outcome for months - years, even - but were now unprepared for the definitive answer: their loved one - perhaps their sister, their daughter, maybe even their mother - had been killed for no reason and buried just outside of town. And now that they knew what had happened, the answer fell flat... this wasn't a fate befitting any of these women, who had fallen on hard times but would be deprived of their second chance forever.
For a few family members, though... these answers had been expected.
You see, Diana Wilhelm - the mother of Cinnamon Elks - would report shortly after the identification of her daughter's remains that she had heard numerous rumors from Cinnamon's friends in the years leading up to this. During the roughly five-year gap that Cinnamon was missing, Diana had heard from her daughter's friends that just prior to her disappearance, Cinnamon had been telling people about a "dirty cop" that was killing sex workers in Albuquerque. At the time, Cinnamon had specifically told people that this "dirty cop" had been chopping off women's heads and then burying them in West Mesa.
Some time later, Diana would claim to have received numerous phone calls over the five-year span which only added to this fear. Diana told reporters that people had been calling her and telling her that her daughter had been decapitated and buried in West Mesa... just like the victims that Cinnamon had once warned others about. Diana claims that these phone calls were reported to police at the time, but there was never any attempt at a follow-up. Maybe that's just due to the rumor itself being hard to prove at the time, but for Diana, it was endemic of the issues plaguing all of these loved ones at the time: no one cared about missing sex workers, and didn't want to dedicate valuable police resources to investigate their disappearance and/or potential murder.
This was an issue that was shared by Karen Jackson, the mother of victim Michelle Valdez. In the time period that Michelle was missing, Karen heard similar rumblings from those close to her. Karen knew that her daughter Michelle was close with Cinnamon Elks, and heard rumors that the two had been stabbed and buried out in West Mesa. In particular, Karen would report that some time before the bodies were discovered, Michelle's sister, Camille (whom I misattributed as Michelle’s aunt in the episode) had received a phone call from one of Michelle's friends, offering condolences. As a New York Times article published in March of 2009 described, Camille heard that Michelle had been:
"... stabbed a bunch of times and thrown out somewhere."
Now, with these women’s bodies being found in West Mesa, these comments were given much more of a spotlight. But for the family members and other loved ones - who had been trying to raise awareness for these missing women for years now - it was too little and too late. Law enforcement had shown again and again that they had no interest in following up on any of these leads, and it was only now - when roughly a dozen bodies being pulled from a burial ground on the outskirts of town - that they seemed to show any interest.
However, one detective had shown an interest in these missing women, many months before their bodies were found. In fact, years before the first bone was found in "The Pit," this detective had put together a list of missing sex workers that had disappeared over a very short period of time. That list - and the information she had gathered in the process of its creation - would go on to guide the rest of the investigation.
That's on the next episode of Unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Published on September 1st, 2019
Producers: Maggyjames, Ben Krokum, Roberta Janson, Matthew Brock, Quil Carter, Peggy Belarde, Evan White, Laura Hannan, Astrid Kneier, Katherine Vatalaro, Damion Moore, Amy Hampton Miller, Scott Meesey, Steven Wilson, Scott Patzold, Kathy Marie, Marie Vanglund, Lori Rodriguez, Emily McMehen, Lauren Harris, Jessica Yount, Aimee McGregor, Danny Williams, Cody Ketterling, Brian Rollins, and Sue Kirk
Original music created by myself through Amper Music
Other music created and composed by Ailsa Traves
Sources and further reading
Albuquerque Journal - “Around New Mexico” (February 11th, 2009)