West Mesa Bone Collector
Part Three: 118th Street Homicides
Since 2009, the 118th Street Task Force has worked to identify and apprehend the unknown killer of 11 women, who murdered and buried them between 2003 and 2005. Multiple suspects have been investigated, thousands of tips have been received, and other potential victims have been tied to the case… but it remains unknown who targeted these women or why.
In February of 2009, police were called out to a neighborhood in the southwest corner of Albuquerque, New Mexico: near 118th Street and Dennis Chavez Boulevard. There, a dog had discovered a human bone, which would turn out to be the first of many.
For the better part of the next three months, police would discover 11 bodies in total (not including the remains of an unborn child, found inside the remains of their mother). Of these eleven bodies, nine were adult and two were juvenile; teenagers that had been ensnared in the same crime spree, and may have had ties to the same social underbelly that the adult victims belonged to. You see, investigators would quickly learn that most of these victims were engaged in sex work and had known drug issues, which fit in with a trend that investigators had picked up on in the years prior.
Between 2001 and 2006, a number of local sex workers had gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Police only picked up on the similarities between their cases in 2005 - when most of the cases had already gone cold - and seemed to write off the victims because of their lifestyles. Hence, their cases being handed off to a cold case detective named Ida Lopez, who continued to fight for them while others - not only police, but local media outlets - continued to ignore them.
Following the discovery of these 11 bodies in 2009, police would spend the next year identifying them. Eventually they would confirm that the women were the following (listed along with when they were reported missing):
- Monica Candelaria (May 2003)
- Veronica Romero (February 2004)
- Evelyn Salazar & Jamie Barela (April 2004)
- Syllania Edwards (who was last seen in May of 2004)
- Cinnamon Elks (August 2004)
- Julie Nieto (August 2004)
- Virginia Cloven (October 2004)
- Doreen Marquez (December 2004)
- Michelle Valdez (February 2005)
- Victoria Chavez (March 2005)
All of these women had similarly tragic stories, which I have detailed over the last two episodes. In addition to sharing many of the same pitfalls in life - including their familiarity for Albuquerque's "War Zone," a high-crime area located along Central Avenue - they also shared a killer, who had seemingly left no trace of himself at the crime scene (which was described as the largest in Albuquerque's history).
In the decade since the discovery of this vast crime scene, investigators with the Albuquerque Police Department, Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department, and FBI have worked to identify this unknown serial killer, who murdered at least 11 women between 2003 and 2005, and may have committed similar crimes in the area. Together, these law enforcement agencies would join forces in a task force, which hoped to identify the individual(s) behind this crime - which they dubbed the "118th Street Homicides."
This is part three of the West Mesa Bone Collector.
This was the first major serial killer case to plague Albuquerque, and while police were able to quickly identify many of the victims - four within a month, and a few others that would follow in quick succession - it is unknown just how prepared they were for a crime of this magnitude.
After all, the victims were predominantly women that had been reported missing years prior, but very little effort had been made to find them. And now that their bodies were being found buried in the once-desolate West Mesa - years after the fact - police were already several steps behind the killer.
At this point, police had very little working in their favor. They had virtually no evidence, due to the victims being found without any clothing or jewelry, and the only major exception seemed to be the plastic bags that some of the victims had been buried in. In addition, investigators would be unable to determine a cause-of-death for any of the women, due to the bodies being buried for so long in the New Mexico desert. There was simply no tissue left on their remains for police to test, but the state of the remains would leave implications of their own. In the autopsy reports, the medical examiner concluded:
"Some acts of violence, such as strangulation or suffocation, may not leave any detectable injuries to skeletal remains and could not be ruled out by this investigation."
Because of the overwhelming lack of evidence, police would already be at a loss when it came to identifying viable suspects. However, in the early days of this investigation, one name kept floating to the top of most reports, and would continue to be spoken about more frequently than others.
Fred Reynolds was an Albuquerque native that had grown up in the region and then returned in adulthood, after living in California's Bay Area for a time. He had long struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, but became sober after returning to New Mexico and entering Alcoholic's Anonymous.
Surprisingly enough, Fred Reynolds entered this story as a person-of-interest several months after his death - having died of natural causes the month before the bodies were found, in January of 2009 - but seemed to have had an interest in the victims which predated their discovery. Let me explain...
Fred Reynolds was involved in the sex industry for several years, working primarily as a pimp in the Albuquerque region. He also owned and operated a company of his own, Have Mercy Escorts, in his latter years. He was picked up by Albuquerque police on numerous occasions for prostitution-related offenses, including arrests in 1998 and 2001, and was believed to have a personal connection to some of the murdered women, including Doreen Marquez, Victoria Chavez, and Victoria Reed (a woman whose story I haven't explored yet, but who disappeared in June of 2006 and may have been tied to the same crime spree).
In addition to having connections to these three missing or murdered women, Reynolds had nude photographs of at least one of them; which was theorized to have been part of his online marketing for the escort service he owned. At the time of his death in January of 2009, police found other photos of missing sex workers in his house, but it's never been released just who, exactly, these women were (or whether they were any of the women that were identified over the next several months).
Police would also learn that in the months prior to his death - as recently as October of 2008 - Fred Reynolds had been making inquiries into these missing women. He had been attempting to track them down through friends or family members, but according to these people, he seemed concerned about their well-being. According to Lori Gallegos, the friend of West Mesa victim Doreen Marquez, who spoke to local news station KOAT:
"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."
Others friends and family that spoke with or knew of Fred Reynolds would later say that he had been a helpful presence in the missing or murdered women's lives, and was unlikely to have been the person who did them harm. In fact, it seemed to them - the loved ones - that Reynolds was trying to use his limited time left on the planet to find them, since nobody else seemed to be making an effort to do so at the time.
Despite being a name that was bandied about pretty frequently in the early days of the case, Fred Reynolds was quickly cleared as a suspect (and is not believed to have been involved in the crimes).
Investigators continued panning out into other areas of the country, in an effort to see if there were other similar offenders operating elsewhere in the United States. As I mentioned in the last episode, investigators probed into neighboring states Texas and Arizona, and even reached out to officials as far away as Wisconsin, where a killer known as the "North Side Strangler" had been terrorizing sex workers for over two decades (who would later be identified, and was determined to have no link to the West Mesa crimes).
But... these inquiries continued, and investigators continued reaching out to other law enforcement agencies, hoping to broaden their scope and obtain as much expertise as they could.
For a time, investigators briefly considered that the killer might have been someone that traveled to Albuquerque for the annual state fair , which is held every September. But that did not seem to fit with the timeline, as many victims had gone missing in other time periods of the year, and there seemed to be no firm pattern that fit with the fair theory. I can assume this theory was abandoned, but police have not revealed that as of yet.
In the absence of evidence, investigators had to rely upon rumors... lots and lot of rumors, which proliferated the case files of many of these missing and murdered women. Some of these are rumors I've already discussed, such as the rumors about Monica Candelaria's death, which were reported by her mother as far back as 2005 (roughly four years before her body was found). At that point, she was just a missing sex worker with drug issues, and the rumor that she had been stabbed and buried in West Mesa was just that: a rumor. Police didn't seem too keen to make follow-ups, and this would eventually just become another notation in her case file.
Then there were the rumors about Cinnamon Elks and Julie Nieto, which I described in the first episode of this series. Multiple theories emerged in the aftermath of their disappearances that they had been killed at around the same time, and might have even been aware that their lives were in danger prior to their deaths. After all, Cinnamon had been telling multiple people about a "dirty cop chopping off women's heads" and burying them in West Mesa, and she would go missing just days/weeks later. Family members of Julie Nieto would report similar incidents involving her taking place at around the same time, and she also disappeared at around the same time as her friend, Cinnamon.
Then there were the rumors about Michelle Valdez, whose family reported back in May of 2005 that they had received a phone call from one of Michelle's friends, who offered their condolences. This phone call came in shortly after she had been reported missing, and years before she was confirmed to be dead. In the call, the caller - who identified themselves as a friend of Michelle - told Michelle's sister, Camille that Michelle had "been stabbed 22 times and she was dead," having been buried in West Mesa.
Mind you, this was a rumor that was noted in a police report back in May of 2005: close to four years before the burial pit was found in West Mesa. In fact, all of these rumors were reported to police, but the overall lack of interest or follow-through really highlighted itself years later, when these rumors - which retroactively seem like writing on the wall - came up again.
Then there were other rumors, which I didn't report on in the earlier episodes. A lot of these rumors revolved around Julie Nieto's disappearance in August of 2004 (right in the middle of this mysterious offender's crime spree). In the months after she was reported missing, two separate women would call police and report her missing; women who called themselves Julie's cousins at the time of the reporting. These two women were later identified as Melodie Carmona and Angela Romero, and they each offered up different dates for when Julie had gone missing (July and August of 2004).
When police discovered that these two women were not related to Julie Nieto - in fact, they only had a loose connection to the missing woman - they became persons-of-interest in the case. Julie's case was then forwarded to the desk of Albuquerque's Homicide Detectives, where it would languish for over a year, before being forwarded to the cold case unit (and into the hands of Detective Ida Lopez).
But this was just an example of the kind of rumors that proliferated the case: stuff like this which provided investigators with an endless number of rabbit holes, but was nearly-impossible to follow up on close to a decade later. Many of the people noted in those rumors - the people that had heard rumors of women being stabbed and buried, the mysterious women that had reported Julie Nieto missing, their boyfriends and pimps, their drug dealers - they were all spread throughout the country and some were never tracked down. If police had followed up on these rumors at the time they were reported, they might have found something... but in 2009 and afterwards, this information was hard to verify, so these rumors would remain rumors for the foreseeable future.
As the investigation continued, police set out to learn more about the crime scene where these women had been buried: this vast mesa of land which formed the unofficial southwestern edge of Albuquerque. To aid them in their quest, investigators turned to satellite images, which had been taken of this area over a period of years (dating back to the early 2000's).
With these images, detectives were able to track the specific region of land that the bodies had been buried in, and see how - over the years - an individual had been making repeated trips out there; well before the land around it had become a large, sprawling housing development, when it was the desolate terrain I described in the first part of this series (nothing but sand, red rock, and tumbleweeds).
Looking at images taken in the early 2000's, investigators could see the the area was virtually untouched. The area where the bodies had been buried looked just like its surroundings: desolate, rocky, sandy... whichever synonym suits you.
By January of 2004 - after at least one of the West Mesa victims had gone missing (Monica Candelaria) - there were tire tracks leading to this area from a nearby road. Specifically, this person had created a small, personal driving path to the location that the bodies were buried, which was a few hundred feet away from any major roads.
The next time that satellite images were recorded - March of 2004 - the tire tracks were even more pronounced. This alluded to the fact that the killer had been back, perhaps multiple times, having gone back to bury more of his or their victims.
This could be tracked over a period of years, leading up to KB Homes purchasing this land and beginning the planning of a housing development in 2006. At that point, this ceased to be a dumping ground for this killer, as he would risk exposure by burying more victims there. Perhaps he had found another location to bury his victims, or had moved on to another hunting ground entirely.
Until then, though, this killer had been making repeated trips out to this area in West Mesa. In these satellite images - which you could view in Google Maps until just recently - you can make out the freshly-dug soil from the dirt around it, indicated where exactly the killer had buried his victims. You could also see the tire tracks leading from a nearby road to this spot, which pointed investigators in the direction of a major suspect.
You see, these tire tracks seemed to head towards a mobile home not too far away... less than two miles from where the eleven West Mesa victims had been buried, in fact. A man had once lived there, who - to this day - remains one of the most likely suspects in this case.
Lorenzo Montoya was a man living out in West Mesa, who found work with a local printing company and lived alone in a trailer - not too far away from where the bodies of eleven women would be found in 2009. But more than two years prior, police would respond to a crime scene at that very trailer, where Lorenzo Montoya lived.
In December of 2006, a woman named Shericka Hill started corresponding with 39-year-old Lorenzo Montoya online. Shericka was a sex worker in Albuquerque, who made most of her appointments online. She arranged to meet up with Montoya at his trailer in the early morning hours of December 17th, 2006. Before she left, though, she made sure to reach out to her boyfriend and pimp Fredrick Williams, who drove her to Montoya's mobile home on the edge of town. He would park down the street, and waited for her while she went in to Montoya's trailer.
Over an hour would pass, and there seemed to be no sign of Shericka stirring anytime soon. So, Fredrick would approach Lorenzo Montoya's mobile home to see what was going on, and here is where reports start to vary.
The exact series-of-events is disputed, but - within moments - Fredrick discovered that Shericka was no longer living. In fact, it seems like as he approached the mobile home, he encountered Montoya attempting to carry Shericka Hill's body into his car's trunk. Some kind of argument or skirmish would ensue, resulting in Fredrick Williams shooting and killing Lorenzo Montoya.
Police would arrive at Montoya's trailer early that Sunday morning, and discovered the horrific scene that had been left behind. Not only was Lorenzo Montoya dead at the hands of Fredrick Williams (a shooting that would later be ruled self-defense), but a woman was dead; and she was another sex worker from Albuquerque, who had died horribly and tragically at Montoya's hands. He had had sex with her, then decided to strangle her, wrapped her in tape, and began preparing to dispose of her remains. A detective later wrote:
"She was bound by the ankles, knees and wrists, with duct tape and cord."
Almost immediately, police suspected that this was not Lorenzo Montoya's first murder, since it seemed like his process was so developed and/or methodical. Within an hour, the woman he invited into his trailer was dead, and he was already planning to dispose of her remains, having had time to wrap her in tapes and blankets. Shortly after this crime was reported to the press, Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz would tell the media:
"There is [a] good probability that this isn't the first time he has done a crime like this. This is too brutal of a crime to be his first one."
After this incident, police continued diving into Lorenzo Montoya's backstory... and the more that they learned, the more that they suspected he had been at this for some time.
For starters, Lorenzo Montoya had numerous arrests for prostitution-related offenses. In 1998, he had solicited an undercover detective along the East Central Corridor (aka "The War Zone"), and that time he was let off with a slap on the wrist. Seeming to have not learned his lesson, the following year - 1999 - he was spotted by police picking up a sex worker in the same area (near the Albuquerque International Airport), who then followed the two to a nearby alleyway, where he was caught attempting to rape and strangle the woman. He had forced the woman to engage in sex acts against her will, and even started choking her (which, she told police, he seemed to take pleasure in).
After being caught in the act and arrested by Albuquerque Police, it was found that Lorenzo Montoya only had $2 in his wallet at the time... leading police to believe that he had never intended to pay the sex worker, and might have even planned on killing her. He was later charged with multiple crimes, including criminal sexual penetration and kidnapping, but these charges were dropped due to the woman not wanting to be involved in any criminal proceedings.
In 2003, Lorenzo Montoya was arrested yet again for soliciting a prostitute - having been observed by police picking up the woman and later paying her just $15 - but this would be the last time he would pop up on police radar until his death in the final weeks of 2006.
In addition to these crimes, Lorenzo Montoya had a sordid personal history, which included numerous domestic violence incidents. He had been arrested once for aggravated battery in 1986 (charges that were later dropped by the plaintiff), and once for domestic violence in 1994 (a case to which he plead guilty, but received only a deferred sentence). One of his ex-girlfriends alleges that Montoya had beat her on multiple occasions and done worse; having done "gross things" which she wouldn't expand on. He apparently even threatened to kill and bury her "in lime," which caught the attention of investigators years later.
The most intriguing thing that investigators and reporters would note later on, is that Montoya called police roughly five times between 1991 and 2006, claiming that his car had been stolen or damaged by fire or acid. I read this in an Albuquerque Journal article, and found it incredibly bizarre, but the journalists that wrote that article - Robert Browman and Nicole Perez - speculate that this might have been an attempt by Montoya to either commit fraud or somehow dispose of evidence. Maybe, somehow, both.
Following his death in December of 2006, police suspected that he had been involved in other crimes, but would not connect him to the rash of missing sex workers until nearly 3 years after his death (when the bodies were discovered in West Mesa). They kept many of his possessions in-storage just in-case, including numerous sex tapes, which he had recorded with local sex workers. Many of the women in these tapes remain unidentified to this day, and years later - in 2016 - Albuquerque Police would publicize some still images of women's faces to try and figure out who they were. It is not known if they were ever successful.
That same year, a snippet of one of these videos would be released, which - thankfully - didn't show any sex acts. It doesn't even feature people, really. However, it's the audio in this clip that makes it so eerie. This snippet is described as being from one of Lorenzo Montoya's sex tapes, and was recorded just moments after he finished having sex with a sex worker. The camera is pointed at a wall of Montoya's trailer, and in the background, you can hear what sounds like Montoya pulling on a roll of tape, as well him preparing a trash bag for some unknown reason.
To-date, it is not confirmed that Lorenzo Montoya was involved in the West Mesa murders. But investigators believe that he had the motive and opportunity - having frequented sex workers for years in the same area that the victims were known to work, as well as living just a mile or two away from their burial ground.
In addition, the satellite images of the crime scene - taken over a period of years - seem to show a clear path connecting the burial ground to Montoya's mobile home.
However, investigators have pored through years of Montoya's financial records, and could find nothing linking him to the West Mesa victims; not even correlated purchases, like duct tape or blankets or anything like that (which could be documented prior to his 2006 murder of Shericka Hill). They also couldn't find any physical evidence linking him to the West Mesa crime, with them testing the DNA of all eleven victims to the carpet taken from his living room floor.
To-date, Lorenzo Montoya remains one of the most likely suspects in this crime, but he is just that... a suspect. Nothing definitive has been found linking him to the West Mesa crimes, but police continue to believe that he committed other crimes that they just haven't identified as of yet.
Roughly a year-and-a-half after the bodies of the eleven West Mesa victims had been found, multiple law enforcement agencies conducted a raid on a home in Joplin, Missouri. This home belonged to a man named Ron Erwin, and the involvement of multiple agencies - namely, the FBI and Albuquerque Police - led many in the media to believe that this raid was somehow tied to the West Mesa investigation. Officials remained silent for a while, but took away an entire trailer full of evidence, which included thousands of photographs.
Later that year - December of 2010 - Albuquerque Police would release seven different photographs which showed eight female subjects. The photos ranged from the bizarre to borderline-horrifying, with only one of the photos showing the subjects - two women - looking at the camera. In the other photographs, the female subjects - most of whom looked Latina - seemed oblivious to their photo being taken.
Honestly, some of these photos are unnerving - despite them not showing any nudity or gore or anything like that. In at least a few of these photos - which are all closeups of the women's faces - they appear to be deceased (or at the very least, unconscious). Nonetheless, the images are somewhat upsetting, and were cast in an ominous glow from the jump. Police released these photos to media outlets, stating that they were looking for the women involved, whom they feared could be in danger.
The release of these photos led to a small-but-vocal outcry in the days afterwards - with some worried readers believing that they had seen what amounted to snuff photos in the morning paper - but this outcry led many to wonder where the photos had come from. It was believed that they could have been related to the raid of a man months prior in Joplin, Missouri, and - unsurprisingly - it was.
Ron Erwin was the man from Joplin whose home and businesses had been raided by police in August of 2010. He owned a couple of local businesses and a photography studio in Joplin, but came upon investigators' radar when they learned that he had made regular trips out to Albuquerque, starting in the mid-1990's, after his friends had encouraged him to visit.
According to Erwin, he found New Mexico to be a perfect setting for his photography, which was one of his major passions in life. So he started making regular trips out to Albuquerque; typically, at around the time of the state fair, in order to photograph the region and the people who lived there. As he put it, he was trying to:
"... photograph people that had never been photographed before."
This is believed to be where the bizarre photos had come from that Albuquerque Police released in December of 2010: Ron Erwin's personal collection. Like I said: these photos weren't obscene or violent-looking or anything like that. They were just... a little bizarre.
As police began looking into Ron Erwin as a suspect, they were able to tie him to specific dates and time periods that happened to correlate to when some of the murdered women had gone missing (exactly who, has never been released). They also learned that Erwin had continued making regular trips out to Albuquerque until September of 2006, which is right around the time that Albuquerque's sex workers stopped disappearing in quick succession. However, it is believed that this is nothing more than a coincidence.
Ron Erwin would remain on the radar of Albuquerque Police for about a year, but in that time, they could find absolutely no evidence linking him to the crimes. In fact, investigators were able to find vindicating evidence, which seemed to confirm that Erwin was in Joplin, Missouri - more than 750 miles away from Albuquerque - on the dates that several of the victims had gone missing (namely Veronica Romero, Evelyn Salazar, and Jamie Barela). They were also unable to find any connections between him and any of the victims.
Erwin appeared to be truthful to investigators, and even flew to the FBI's headquarters in Virginia to take a polygraph test with federal officials. In 2011, he was officially removed from the list of suspects, and police have not really detailed how or why they originally came to suspect him... only stating that he was no longer under suspicion.
In 2011, a spokeswoman for the Albuquerque P.D. - Sgt. Tricia Hoffman - told the Joplin Globe:
"Why he was a suspect - that's all in sealed warrants, that's still part of our pending investigation. But at this point, we've been able to eliminate him as a viable suspect."
Police in Albuquerque have not spoken about Erwin in the years since, but following this announcement, Ron Erwin himself was quick to point out that he was innocent and the mere allegations had nearly ruined his life. To-date, he still doesn't know why he was suspected or how his world had gotten so upended due to mere suspicions.
In the end, it turned out that the photos found in Erwin's collection were a complete nonstarter for police. At least two of the women from the photographs were identified within days of their distribution, and were both found to be safe and well. One had gone on to die of natural causes some time after her photo was taken, but well before the publication of her image in newspapers. In the years since, all but two of the female subjects have been identified, and none of them are believed to be tied to the West Mesa murders.
Neither was Ron Erwin.
At this point in the story, several years had passed since the bodies of eleven women were found in West Mesa, and the media had focused their attention on just a few suspects: primarily Fred Reynolds, Lorenzo Montoya, and Ron Erwin. Of those three, only Lorenzo Montoya remained as a viable suspect, but he had died nearly a decade prior, and almost all investigations into him were stonewalled for that very reason. To put it simply: too much time had passed, and there was very little that investigators could learn about him that they hadn't already know. Even cutting-edge DNA testing failed to establish any link between him and the eleven West Mesa victims.
But just a few years ago, another suspect would emerge, who - along with Lorenzo Montoya - remains one of the most likely candidates. His name is Joseph Blea.
Joseph Blea came upon investigators' radar just days after the first bodies were found in West Mesa, when his ex-wife contacted police. She told them that Blea, a Albuquerque native in his mid-fifties, had regularly dumped garbage at the same location and also frequented sex worker in the region... whom, she told police, Blea held a deep and profound hatred for.
This call seemed to resonate with investigators, who later found an ID tag for a specific plant buried in "The Pit"; in particular, it had been found buried roughly eight feet underground, along with one of the victims... which was unlikely to be a coincidence. Police were able to track the ID tag to a local nursery, and discovered that Joseph Blea - who owned and operated a landscaping business in Albuquerque - was a regular customer who had purchased similar plants in the past.
These two details - the phone call from his ex-wife and the ID tag found buried with the bodies - immediately put Joseph Blea on the suspect list. But... who was he, exactly?
Well, Blea was a man who had a long and storied history with law enforcement. Some articles speculate that Blea had more than 100 run-ins with police throughout his life, dating back to the 1970's (when he was a teenager). In the late 70's and early 80's, he had been arrested on numerous burglary charges, having broken into women's homes and apartments to steal their undergarments (namely, their underwear). He later plead guilty to these crimes, and was sentenced to probation - under the stipulation that he also undergo mental health evaluations.
This seemed to have done very little good, as just a few years later, Joseph Blea would be arrested for exposing himself in public to numerous women. This landed him in prison for a couple of years, but was just a small facet of his perversion. You see, through his life, Joseph Blea would become a frequent customer for sex workers in the region, especially sex workers that worked in the area along Central Avenue (the area of town known as "The War Zone"). This was later verified by his ex-wife, who - according to the details of a search warrant published by the Albuquerque Journal in 2015 - told police that Blea:
"... often speaks about his hatred for prostitutes, calling them dirty whores and sluts, somethings calling them by name..."
Beyond being just a lecherous panty-stealer with a troubled youth, Joseph Blea was a continuous nuisance well into adulthood. In the early 2000's, Joseph Blea exposed himself yet again to a woman walking by his car, who informed police. When officers got there, they found electric tape and rape within arms reach, which - if I'm being honest - is not a good look.
Blea also had a shady personal history, as both of his ex-wives allege that he was violent and cruel to them, and criminal records seem to back this up. In 1997, Blea was charged with battery, and in 2008, he was charged with aggravated assault and inflicting great bodily harm on a household member with a deadly weapon. Both ex-wives state that he would also regularly leave home at night under the guise of working, but they knew that wasn't the case. He was likely either visiting sex workers or worse.
It's also worth mentioning that both of Joseph Blea's ex-wives would later tell police that he had a habit of collecting keepsakes or mementos from sex workers and other women, which fit in with his burglary charges from the 1970's and early 1980's. These were primarily undergarments or jewelry that his wife and daughter would find in their home; in one instance, his daughter even found multiple pairs of women's underwear outside in their shed. It was not know how Blea came to possess many of these items, but it's possible that at least some might have come from the West Mesa victims.
Following the discovery of the West Mesa victims in 2009, the phone call from his ex-wife and the discovery of the plant tag led investigators straight to Joseph Blea. They discovered that he was a regular customer of the nursery where the plant had come from, having purchased plants between 2003 and 2005 (the same time as the murders). In the following days, police would begin trailing Blea, discovering that he often drove into "The War Zone," the high-crime area of Albuquerque along the East Central Corridor. There, he did not approach any of the sex workers, but seemed to just... watch them for a distance. On at least one occasion, for well over an hour.
A search warrant used by police later read:
"On two separate occasions Mr. Blea drove Central Ave from the west part of Albuquerque to the east part of Albuquerque. He slowed and circled the block in areas where prostitutes were working. He did not approach any prostitutes but appeared to be closely watching them."
Investigators would even approach sex workers in the area, hoping to learn more about Joseph Blea and if they were familiar with him. Some were, and they did not have many kind things to say. One woman in particular alleged that she had gone back with Blea to his house, and there, he had unsuccessfully attempted to tie her up. Thankfully, she was able to leave unharmed, but she later told her friends to look out for Blea and avoid him if possible.
This gave police more of an inclination to investigate Joseph Blea, but that would only accelerate in the coming years, when it came to light that Blea - a man already under suspicion for several murders - was more of a sexual deviant and violent offender than previously thought.
Remember when I told you that Joseph Blea had been arrested in 2008 for attacking a family member? Well, following his arrest, he was forced to submit DNA to authorities. Well, that DNA finally came back as a positive match for at least one crime, and a potential match for numerous others. Joseph Blea, it turns out, had sexually assaulted several teenage girls in a series of brutal and violent home invasions, which had left residents in the region terrified for years.
In 1988, a 13-year old girl that lived with her family near McKinley Middle School (in Albuquerque) had been raped at knife-point inside her own living room by a masked attacker, who was able to escape without being identified. He would later go on to rape numerous other teenage girls with the same M.O., eventually earning himself the moniker of the "Mid-School Molester." His DNA linked him to the 1988 rape case, but he was later charged with a series of kidnappings and sexual assaults, earning him a 90-year prison sentence in 2015.
DNA also linked Joseph Blea to the 1985 murder of an Albuquerque sex worker named Jennifer Lynn Shirm, but to-date, no charges have been filed in that case. It is not known if police were able to obtain a full sample or a partial sample, since not much information has been released about that case.
While incarcerated, Blea would apparently make several remarks to one of his cellmates, claiming to have known many of the West Mesa victims. This cellmate says that Blea told him he had once paid them for sex, and in at least one case, had struck the woman after she attempted to rob him. This cellmate later told police about these allegations, but Blea has denied any involvement in the years since his conviction.
Police have reiterated their interest in Joseph Blea in the years since, with him not only living in the region and having a violent history (full of sexual deviancy), but also having a connection to the area the women were buried and keeping mementos of unknown women (in the form of mysterious jewelry and underwear). He remains one of the two main suspects (along with Lorenzo Montoya), and it is believed that police simply don't have enough evidence to charge him with any of the crimes.
Thankfully, though, they don't need to... because he's almost assured to die in prison.
In addition to the eleven West Mesa victims - whose stories I told you about in the first two parts of this series - it is believed that that the killer may have targeted other sex workers in the Albuquerque area. These were women who disappeared in the same general area as the others, and all went missing under suspicious circumstances.
While some of these women went missing at around the same time - between the Springs of 2003 and 2005 - other stories extend beyond that timeline. At least one of these potential victims went missing two years prior, and a couple went missing in 2006 (a year after the West Mesa crimes are believed to have come to an end). In order, they are:
- Darlene Trujillo, who was 20 years old at the time of her disappearance. On July 5th, 2001, she headed off to Arizona alongside a man named "Jorge," and made plans to return two days later. She was never seen or heard from again, although Jorge was, and her whereabouts are unknown. It is rumored that she might have been spotted in Mexico or Arizona after her disappearance, but there has been no confirmation of that in the years since.
- Anna Vigil, who went missing under mysterious circumstances on either January 20th or 21st, 2005. She was reported missing a week later (January 29th), and left behind a young son, who is now approaching adulthood.
- Felipa Gonzales, also known as "Vickie/Vicky," who went missing in April of 2005. She had just been released from prison a short time prior, and - like the other victims - was a known sex worker with drug issues. She was also a young woman with a history of depression, which was believed to be one of her major catalysts for entering that lifestyle. She was 22 years old when she was reported missing on April 27th, 2005.
- Nina Herron, who went by the nickname of "Jasmine," was 21 years old when she went missing on May 14th, 2005. She was last seen at her home along the 8000 block of Central Avenue, at around 5:00 PM that day. Her mother would report her missing some time later, who later (and unsuccessfully) hired a private investigator to find her.
- Shawntell Waites was 29 years old when she was reported missing on March 15th, 2006. She disappeared without anyone noticing, and very little is known about her life at the time she went missing. She did leave behind at least one daughter, though, who now has children of her own - grandchildren that know very little about their grandmother.
- Leah Peebles, who became addicted to heroin shortly after being raped by a former-friend from high school. She later moved to Albuquerque to get a fresh start in life, but - within three weeks - had fallen into the seedy world of sex work and drug use that plagued Central Avenue. She was last known to be alive on May 22nd, 2006, after leaving her home to meet up with an unknown man at the Flying Star Cafe for a date.
- Vanessa Reed, who was 24 years old when she went missing in the summer of 2006. On June 13th of that year, she was staying in an Albuquerque motel known for sex work, and - following an argument with her sister - walked away from the motel to cool down. She never returned, and hasn't been seen or heard from since that day.
All of these women went missing in the same time period as the other eleven victims, and all had ties to the same unsavory characters: the pimps and drug dealers operating in "The War Zone." These women were all included on Detective Ida Lopez's list in the mid-2000's, and police continue to believe that they might have been targeted by the same individual(s) that murdered the other women; they might have simply been buried in another burial ground, and have yet to be found all these years later.
In the years since this investigation started, numerous men have been suspected of involvement. I've told you about many of them in this episode - Fred Reynolds, Lorenzo Montoya, Ron Erwin, and Joseph Blea. Among them, only Lorenzo Montoya and Joseph Blea are still suspected by police of having involvement, but we do know that inquiries have been launched into other known offenders, and it remains unknown just how heavily they were scrutinized by law enforcement.
Scott Lee Kimball is a Colorado-based serial killer that murdered four people between January of 2003 and August of 2004. He later plead guilty in 2009 to all four crimes, which stretched out from Colorado into the state of Utah. During his trial, it came out that he had been operating as an FBI informant at the time, which was a huge scandal for the Bureau (as they had - in essence - been employing a serial killer). He later admitted in correspondence with his cousin back in 2010 that he was being investigated as a West Mesa suspect, as he had involvement in illegal activities in New Mexico and - at one point - had confessed to dozens of other murder victims. He has since denied any involvement in these crimes.
Robert Howard Bruce - aka "The Ether Man" - is another one of these known offenders that has been speculated to have been involved in the West Mesa crimes. He would later confess to dozens of sexual assaults between 1985 and 2007, having broken into women's homes and apartments, where he would chloroform and handcuff his victims (before subjecting them to horrifying sexual assaults). His crimes spanned numerous states, including Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, and even New Mexico - where he was later sentenced to nearly 200 years in prison.
Then there is another unknown offender, whose notoriety is almost equal to that of the West Mesa Bone Collector. It's a name that Unresolved listeners will be familiar with: the Long Island Serial Killer, whose story I covered back in 2016. LISK (as he or they are known) is believed to have murdered numerous sex workers and then abandoned their bodies along the Ocean Parkway, on New York's Long Island.
The victims of the Long Island Serial Killer fit the same profile as the victims in this story - they were young women with history of sex work and drug issues, who often met their clients through internet services (such as Craiglist and Backpage). They all went missing over a time period that would correlate to the Bone Collector having moved east, as they all disappeared between 2007 and 2010. There even seem to be loosely-related crimes that predate both sprees, which may indicate a type of sporadic killer, who kills in bursts and may travel constantly (for work or something like that).
The documentary series "The Killing Season" postulated that these two unidentified killers might be one in the same, due to the timeline fitting and there being numerous similarities between the two cases. Even though I personally don't believe they are one in the same, I do admit that it is possible, and the timelines would seem to match up with the Bone Collector moving east.
Personally, though, I think the most infuriating possibility - and the most likely - is that the Long Island Serial Killer and the West Mesa Bone Collector are not the same person. I think that the only similarity between them is their choice of victim, as both killers targeted the less fortunate, and both preyed upon women that the rest of the world does their best to ignore: drug addicts, sex workers... in general, women that are desperate and that the rest of the world pretends don't exist. That's exactly what all of these women were, and I find that not only depressing but terribly enraging.
After all, it shouldn't surprise anyone that two serial killers would happen to target these women at around the same time, because history has shown us - again and again - that they make the perfect victims. Police don't care, the public doesn't care, the media doesn't care... nobody cares. So serial killers continue to target these women because they can... and none of us can do a fucking thing to stop them. At least, not until we overhaul the way we view sex work and drug use in this country, and actually attempt to do something about it.
Until then, these women will continue to live on the fringes of society, and will continue to be ignored as men like the Long Island Serial Killer, Lorenzo Montoya, Joseph Blea, and the West Mesa Bone Collector victimize them again and again.
Every February, another year passes for the loved ones of the West Mesa victims. They continue to honor the date that the first body was found - February 9th - and this past February, a major milestone passed: it had been ten years since the bodies of the eleven women were found buried in "The Pit," and their loved ones had to mark the milestone in relative silence.
There was nothing major or groundbreaking to report. It was just another somber reminder that eleven lives had been snuffed out well before their time and they - the surviving friends and family - were those women's lasting legacy.
Sadly, some of these loved ones are no longer with us, having passed away in the years since their sisters, daughters, cousins, and friends went missing. Others - such as the children of the victims - have had to grow up without their mothers. Some now have children of their own, who will only ever hear stories of their grandmothers, and never get the chance to actually know them.
Christine Ross, the woman who accidentally discovered the bodies with the help of her dog, Ruca, has since moved to Arizona. She's a decade older, as is Ruca - who was a young pup at the time of the discovery, but is now a teenager, wizened with age and partially blind.
A lot has changed since the eleven bodies were found in West Mesa. Albuquerque, for starters, has changed a lot since the early 2000's, when all of these victims went missing. "The War Zone" is now known as the "International District," and - despite it still being the biggest hotbed of crime in Albuquerque - has improved in numerous ways.
Police in Albuquerque are now more willing to stick out their neck for local sex workers, actually investigating rape and assault allegations that they would have ignored - or even laughed at - a decade ago. They also continue to use advancements in crime-fighting technology, such as DNA testing and ground-penetrating radar, to search for this unknown killer and other victims that may be tied to them.
Albuquerque Police hope that this softer approach to law enforcement - trying to protect sex workers instead of mindlessly ignoring them - will lead to a much more amicable relationship. If all goes well, they might even be able to prevent a crime like this from ever happening again. At least, that's the hope.
One of the lead investigators in the West Mesa case, Michael Geier, is now the police chief of Albuquerque. He continues to dedicate at least one full-time detective to the case, which some would argue isn't a lot... but others would argue is a lot better than simply letting the case go cold. Chief Geier has reiterated his commitment to the case in recent years, and remains hopeful that answers can be found.
Ida Lopez, the detective that originally connected all of these women when they were just missing sex workers, retired from the Albuquerque Police Department in 2014 after a long and storied career. She had earned herself a hard-earned break from tragedy, and moved out of New Mexico for a spell, leaving the case in the capable hands of Detective Mark Manary. However, she could not stay away for long, coming back a year or so later to focus on this investigation full-time. She still hopes to find "her girls," and remains committed to finding out who killed them.
Street Safe New Mexico is an organization set up in 2012 by Christine Barber, who was an Albuquerque woman hoping to do some good after learning about these murders. Her project, Street Safe New Mexico, is an organization that has multiple programs set up for sex workers in the area to stay safe, including Pepper Spray Give-Aways, Save Your Skin (a program hosted by University of New Mexico students that looks to prevent abscesses caused by drug use), Safe Sex Work (which provides condoms and other contraceptives to sex workers), and the Bad Guy List (a program that documents assaults and attacks against sex workers in the area).
The Bad Guy List actually publishes their information online for anyone to read, and you can find this information by simply Googling "Bad Guy List Albuquerque." Let me tell you, though... it's not pretty. If you think attacks against sex workers are rare, think again. The Bad Guy List helps keep these women safe, and Street Safe New Mexico has been a net positive for Albuquerque in general.
If you - or anyone you know - is in Albuquerque and finds yourself in a similar situation as the women from this episode, please consider reaching out to Street Safe New Mexico. You can find them online by heading to streetsafenewmexico.org, and contact them from there. If you live in an area outside of Albuquerque and have similar issues or concerns in your life, reach out to a local advocacy group like them. I promise you there are people nearby that are always looking to help, you just need to take the first step and reach out. Hell, reach out to me and I'll do my best to find someone that can help you.
Police in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County - as well as the FBI - continue to investigate the case of the West Mesa Bone Collector, and are still receiving regular tips (rumored to be in the thousands per year). However, they encourage the public at-large - all of us - to remain vigilant and call in any tip that may be relevant... no matter how big or small. A $100,000 reward still stands for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person (or persons) responsible. If you know something, you are encouraged to contact the 118th Street Task Force at 1-877-765-8273 or 505-768-2450. You can even contact Crime Stoppers at 505-843-STOP.
I hope to bring you an update on this story in the near-future, but until then, the stories of Jamie Barela, Monica Candelaria, Victoria Chavez, Virginia Cloven, Syllannia Edwards, Cinnamon Elks, Doreen Marquez, Julie Nieto, Veronica Romero, Evelyn Salazar, and Michelle Valdez remain unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Published on September 15th, 2019
Producers: Maggyjames, Ben Krokum, Roberta Janson, Matthew Brock, Quil Carter, Peggy Belarde, Evan White, Laura Hannan, Astrid Kneier, Katherine Vatalaro, Amy Hampton Miller, Scott Meesey, Steven Wilson, Damion Moore, Scott Patzold, Marie Vanglund, Lori Rodriguez, Kathy Marie, Emily McMehen, Jessica Yount, Aimee McGregor, Lauren Harris, Danny Williams, Cody Ketterling, Brian Rollins, Sue Kirk, and Rory Plante.
Original music created by myself through Amper Music
Other music created and composed by Ailsa Traves