West Mesa Bone Collector
Part Two: The War Zone
Through 2009, police would continue to unearth a mass grave along the western edge of Albuquerque. It took several months for investigators to piece together the details of these women's tragic lives, but the exact circumstances of their disappearances/murders would be hard to grasp. Years later, police continue to have many questions about these women, and who had targeted them...
Ida Lopez grew up in the Albuquerque region of New Mexico, and was inspired by her grandfather at an early age to become a police officer. She attended college, and then enrolled in the police academy, hoping to achieve some good in the world. Shortly thereafter, she started working for the Albuquerque Police Department as a uniformed officer, and - over a long and storied career - would become a detective.
Ida's work often took her into an area of Albuquerque known as "The War Zone": a high crime area near Albuquerque's Central Avenue. This was the part of the city that people have long tried to avoid, if possible, and I know that many of us can sympathize: pretty much every city or town has a place similar to "The War Zone" (which has been renamed the "International District in recent years, as part of a concerted effort to boost the area's image). But for Albuquerque, this part of town has long been a blight that needs correcting.
In 1991, the Albuquerque Journal described "The War Zone" as:
"... a loose-jointed carnival of sex, drugs and booze..."
And a generation later - in 2009 - the New York Times followed up with a similar critique, calling it:
"... a neighborhood of housing projects, heroin and sex shops near the University of New Mexico."
This was an area that often conflicted with Detective Lopez's own religious beliefs - as she had been raised devoutly Catholic - but it really widened her eyes to the realities of this world. It highlighted what kind of dangers were faced by women not too different from herself, who had faced a different set of challenges and might not have been so lucky with their lot in life. These were primarily sex workers, who were caught in a vicious cycle of dependency issues and addiction, who - more often than not - were looking for a way out.
Detective Lopez didn't view these women's lives as any less than her own, and this allowed her to view them as not only statistics or useful informants, but people in their own right. She would begin to refer to these women as "her girls," and she would become protective over them during her lengthy career in law enforcement.
In the mid-2000's, Detective Lopez endured a couple of setbacks in regards to her personal health. Following a medical leave-of-absence, she returned to work and was assigned a part-time job focusing on the area's missing people; one of whom happened to be Michelle Valdez, a young woman that had been reported missing in February of 2005.
Detective Lopez began working her way through Michelle's story, learning about the issues that had been plaguing her life prior to her disappearance: not only the myriad of relationship troubles, but her legal woes, which involved prison stints for both sex work and drug possession. It all painted a very tragic portrait of a life that had gone off of the rails, but was still worth saving. After all, Michelle wasn't a bad person, she had just fallen on hard times and deserved a second chance.
As she dug into this case, Detective Ida Lopez began to notice that Michelle Valdez's disappearance was incredibly similar to others from the region: primarily, young Latina women that had a history of drug use and sex work, who had all gone missing in the same general area ("The War Zone"). These women had started to go missing at a pretty rapid pace back in 2001, but stretched all the way to 2006, just as Detective Lopez was beginning to look through these cases... many of which had been virtually ignored by her peers.
So, Ida began to compile a list of these missing women, which would number anywhere between 16 and 24 (depending on what information she found and when). All were women that had prostitution convictions or were suspected of being sex workers that had gone missing between 2001 and 2005, and all had been seen in "The War Zone" shortly before their disappearance. Out of the 24 missing women that made up her list years later, only 17 had available dental records, which Ida had to ask their families for; a morbid request, as the necessity of dental records would almost always require a body to compare them to.
Detective Lopez would continue to work on numerous missing persons investigations in the area - as part of Albuquerque's Cold Case Unit - but her list quickly became forgotten in a flurry of more high-profile cases.
In 2007, Maggie Shepard - a journalist with the little-known and now-defunct afternoon newspaper The Albuquerque Tribune - went on a ride-along with some of the city's police officers. During this ride-along, she heard about this list of missing women; whom, she would later recall, police were not too interested in following up on at the time. Speaking to NPR in 2010, she would state:
"They weren't trying to make it seem [like] anything other than what it was, a list of missing prostitutes."
Nonetheless, the idea of this list intrigued Maggie Shepard, who decided to publish an article about the case in the Tribune. That article (titled "The Missing") would be published on September 15th, 2007, and included pictures of the then-16 missing women.
For almost all of the women featured in that article, this would be the only public mention of their disappearances. Their families - and now other interested parties - tried reaching out to larger publications to cover the story, but this request fell on deaf ears. For many, this story just wasn't that intriguing: it was nothing but a bunch of drug-addicted prostitutes, who had gone missing in a city of a half-million people. There was no hook, no twist... nothing to excite the reader, they said.
Well... that all changed in February of 2009, when the body of a young woman was found in Albuquerque's West Mesa: an elevated landmass on the western side of the city. As police began excavating the earth around her, they would find several more bodies, totaling near a dozen by the time they were done digging.
Investigators would quickly begin putting names to the bodies, and - surprisingly - many of them were names that had been featured on Detective Ida Lopez's list years prior (one of which was Michelle Valdez, the woman whose disappearance had sparked the creation of this list). In fact, pretty much all of the women that had been buried in "the pit" had been on Ida's list, with a couple of exceptions: two victims that were too young to be profiled, and were either not believed to live in the region or have fit the profile of the killer.
The others, though... fit the profile of the killer to a 'T'. They were virtually all young sex workers that had gone missing about five years prior to the discovery of this mass grave on the edge of town. The victims had all been reported missing, but there had been almost no effort to find them in the half-decade since.
They were victims that no one had given a shit about... until it was already too late.
The list that Ida Lopez had spent time building would go on to inform the rest of the investigation, but all of the victims would be revealed to have some tie to the part of town known for its rampant sex work, gang activity, and drug use: the area now officially known as the "International District," but has retained its god-given name amongst locals: "The War Zone."
This is part two of the West Mesa Bone Collector.
In February of 2009, a random series-of-events had led to the discovery of a mass grave along the western edge of Albuquerque, just off of 118th Street. A woman walking her dog had accidentally discovered the first of many hundreds of bones, which would eventually be pieced back together into numerous skeletons.
While news agencies originally reported there to be as many as 13 adult victims, that number was a slight exaggeration due to the scattered nature of the bodies. This would later be condensed in subsequent reports to 11 adult victims; along with 1 unborn child, whose remains had been found inside their mother's.
All of the adult victims were believed to have been sex workers living in the region, who all had ties to the nefarious "War Zone" region of town. They had all been buried without any clothing or personal items, and both the cause and manner of their deaths were unknown, with police only ever labelling them as victims of "homicidal violence." However, Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz would later clarify this just a tad, telling the press:
"There were no outward signs of trauma on any of the remains. That leads us to believe they were either strangled or suffocated."
The discovery of these 11 corpses - 12, if you include the unborn child - led to an extensive dig in what has been named the largest crime scene in Albuquerque history... perhaps, one of the largest crime scenes in New Mexico history. This excavation would require entire teams of investigators working around-the-clock over the span of roughly two-and-a-half months, as they dug through approximately 100 acres of dirt; all the while, remaining aware that any mistake in handling the evidence could result in the killer of these women walking free.
Dental records helped quickly identify the first four victims in quick succession:
- Veronica Chavez, who had been reported missing in March of 2005, but had not been seen or heard from by her loved ones for at least a year prior.
- Michelle Valdez, who had been reported missing in February of 2005, but had been missing for several months at that point.
- Cinnamon Elks, who was officially reported missing in December of 2004, but whose family had noted her absence and unsuccessfully attempted to report her missing as far back as August of 2004.
- Then there was Julie Nieto, who was reported missing in August of 2004, and whose absence had been noted shortly beforehand.
These four victims were between the ages of 22 and 32 at the time of their disappearance, and had gone missing some time between 2004 and 2005. Due to their lifestyle - which included drug use and sex work - the exact circumstances of their disappearance were hard to gauge, and prematurely crippled the already-apathetic police response.
Investigators believed that the seven other unidentified women, whose bodies had been found in the same burial ground as these four, would share similar attributes: they were all likely young women (most of Latina heritage) who had been involved in sex work and drug usage, who all likely frequented the same area of town: the aptly-named "War Zone," which (at this time) was being re-branded by city officials as the "International District." Detectives began going through old missing persons cases from the prior decade, hoping to find some kind of connection that they could make to the current victims, whose identities eluded them.
In this search, police ended up coming upon the list created by Detective Ida Lopez years prior, whose origins were tied to the disappearance of now-identified Michelle Valdez. Her identification all-but-confirmed Detective Lopez's original assumption that someone had been targeting these women, and they had not fallen prey to substance abuse or sex trafficking or anything like that... but rather, a killer, who had attempted to dispose of their remains in the once-desolate West Mesa.
All four of the identified women - Veronica Chavez, Michelle Valdez, Cinnamon Elks, and Julie Nieto - had been featured on Detective Lopez's list, among at least a dozen others. Their stories had been featured in a 2007 Albuquerque Tribune article, authored by Maggie Shepard, and were all believed to be linked to one another. It was almost a guarantee at this point that many of the bodies found in West Mesa would be linked to the missing persons cases Detective Lopez had compiled years prior, and that list would go on to inform the rest of the investigation.
Throughout March, family members and other loved ones - who now had to grieve the official loss of the missing women in their lives - began speaking out to the press. For many, it was the first time, as their loved ones' stories had been virtually ignored by the press for years at this point. But this was finally the chance to spread the story of their daughters, their sisters, their cousins, and - for some, their mothers - to a national audience that finally seemed to care.
While some seized at the opportunity, others balked... realizing that journalists and other interested parties only wanted to cover this story now that it had come neatly-packaged in the form of a mass grave, which was shocking and exciting. The real story - the story about how these women had fallen into their situation, and how the city itself had all but ignored them until it was too late - that story wasn't going to be heard.
While the shock of the case continued to reverberate through the Albuquerque region, investigators continued exhaustively chasing down leads and hoping to identify the victims through both dental records and DNA testing. This process would carry the story through March of 2009 - the second month of the investigation - but it wasn't until April that more victims were publicly identified, starting with two at the beginning of the month.
Veronica Romero was born on June 19th, 1976 - making her around 28 years old at the time of her disappearance years later.
But before she became a victim of this unknown killer, she had been an only daughter, who had no siblings to share her childhood with, but had a large extended family - as well as a close-knit group of friends, who would consider themselves her "soul" sisters and brothers years later. Veronica would eventually have five children of her own, who - one day - would be left to live without the guidance or kinship of their birth mother.
Veronica Romero had been one of the names on Detective Ida Lopez's list of missing women, due to the circumstances of her disappearance, and the similarities between her story and the other victims (who all had a history of drug use and prostitution charges). She was last seen in February of 2004, near the street corners of Wyoming Blvd. and Central Ave., right in the middle of "The War Zone" itself. Witnesses saw Veronica get into a white pickup truck, and she would never be seen again.
Family members would report Veronica missing around Valentine's Day, just a couple of weeks later - either on February 14th or 15th of 2004. Following the filing of this report, Veronica's loved ones would continuously venture into the "War Zone" in an effort to look for her, even distributed missing persons flyers throughout the region, hoping to raise awareness or receive some kind of information.
Later - after the bodies of the 11 murdered women were found in West Mesa - these same friends and family members would voice their displeasure at the police inactivity in the case, believing that the cops did not do nearly enough to help find Veronica. One of her cousins, Desiree Gonzales, later told the New York Times in 2009:
"They haven't done nothing for all these years."
Veronica's family had long feared that her name would be included in the West Mesa victims; in fact, almost as soon as the news broke, they would speak to local news station KOAT, in which they voiced these concerns to a public audience. They hoped that Veronica's name wouldn't be included in the victims, but also stated that finding out would finally bring all of them closure, and would ensure that Veronica was no longer living in the pain and tragedy that had plagued her years before her disappearance.
Veronica Romero was the 7th victim to be found in West Mesa, and the 5th to be publicly identified. Like the other women, she had been buried for too long for the Medical Examiner or forensic investigators to learn much about her death, but they hoped that her story could provide some illuminating piece of evidence: maybe the date would become relevant in the future, or the details of the white pickup truck she had last been seen in would become pertinent.
Veronica's identification was announced to the world on April 2nd, 2009 - two months to the day after the first body had been found. But on that same day, police announced that they had identified yet another victim... whose story predated the rest by close to a year.
Monica Candelaria was born on June 20th, 1981 in Albuquerque to her parents, Gabriel and Isabel. She only had one sibling - a brother named Gabriel Jr. - but had a large extended family that provided her with plenty of love through her roughly 21 years.
At an early age, Monica would give birth to a son named Michael, whom she adored but whom she wasn't around long enough to see grow up. Monica eventually fell into a dark world out-of-her-control, and was believed to have had ties to some local gangs (which populate the area of town known as "The War Zone"). She would go on to receive a single conviction for prostitution, and was noted by police at the time for living a "high-risk lifestyle," which may have involved further sex work and potentially even drug use.
Monica was last seen on May 11th, 2003, in the South Valley of Albuquerque, near Atrisco Drive and Central Avenue. She was reported missing to police nearly two weeks later, and from the get-go, her story was handled by investigators with the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department (the region's over-arching police agency). These investigators attempted to stay active on her case for roughly six months, and would eventually document rumors reported by Monica's loved ones; in particular, Monica's mother, Isabel Candelaria, who told police that a man living in her neighborhood named Isaac had perpetuated a rumor about Monica being killed and buried in West Mesa.
Mind you, these rumors were reported as far back as 2003 - roughly six years before the bodies of Monica and 10 other women would be found in West Mesa. Yet, at the time, it seems like Bernalillo County Sheriff's officials were able to confirm or deny the rumors (perhaps due to the immense size of the West Mesa region, which would make finding buried bodies like finding needles in a haystack). It is still unknown if this "Isaac" had any incriminating evidence, or if he had just been spewing bullshit which turned out to be based in some kind of truth.
However, it would later be reported that Monica's loved ones had begun searching the area nearby where her body would later be found. Along with police, they had scoped out this region near 118th Street, and ultimately discovered a human jawbone, which did not belong to Monica. This led to a brief digging attempt, which - unfortunately - failed to discover the remains of Monica or the other missing women.
Investigators with the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department would continue to follow up on leads through October of 2003, but then made the decision to hand the case over to the cold case unit, where it languished for the next several years.
Monica Candelaria would remain a missing persons cold case until February of 2009. Hers was the third body to be found in West Mesa, and she would be the sixth victim identified, nearly two months later. Like the other victims, Monica's cause-of-death was impossible-to-determine, but police remained optimistic that the information gathered during her initial missing persons investigation - which was considerably more than some of the others - might provide useful in the hunt for this killer.
Undersheriff Sal Baragiola of the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department spoke to the Albuquerque Journal at the time of this announcement, in April of 2009, and told journalist Jeff Proctor:
"We have a lot of information that will be helpful to the task force... We have information about [Monica's] associates, who she hung out with. We'll be passing on the cold case file, and I'm sure we'll be one of the lead agencies on this aspect of the larger case."
It was believed that this information was useful in creating a rough timeline of Monica's final days, but it is unknown just how much this information aided the overall investigation. After all, nearly six years had passed since Monica had gone missing, and her disappearance predated the other known victims by nearly an entire calendar year; so far, she was the only victim to have gone missing in 2003, while the others went missing in either 2004 or 2005.
Police continued trying to zero in on the identities of the remaining five victims, believing them all to be women that had been noted on Detective Ida Lopez's list (all of whom had been missing sex workers that had disappeared between 2001 and 2006). This hunch would prove correct when the 7th victim was identified as a woman whose story was incredibly similar to the others, but bore some noticeable exceptions.
Doreen Marquez was born on August 31st, 1976, to her parents David and Dorothy. She was just one of five children, and she would grow up in Albuquerque alongside three sisters and one brother. In fact, Doreen would even attend West Mesa High School - not too far away from where her body was later found.
Doreen would have two children at an early age - both daughters, named Destinie and Mercedes - whose lives she was incredibly active in. You see, unlike the other known victims of this killer, Doreen did not really seem to have any issues growing up. Through her teenage years, she was a stable presence in her loved ones' lives, and was able to become a responsible parent for her children: she lived in a nice home in an affluent area, drove a nice car, and helped provide a good life for her daughters.
Doreen's friends and family would later remember her as a bubbly and spirited individual, who was always trying to look as fashionable as she could. She made sure to stop on top of the current fashion trends, and was very particular about her appearance: buying the nicest clothes and constantly getting her hair and nails done.
It wasn't until Doreen was already well into adulthood that she started to experience issues, when her boyfriend at the time was sent to jail. As a result, the two broke up, and Doreen seemed to collapse under the pressure of being a heartbroken single parent, turning to drugs shortly thereafter (namely heroin).
Fredrica Garcia, one of Doreen's friends, would recall to the Albuquerque Journal years later:
"It wasn't like she lived this lifestyle from 18 to 27. It wasn't like that. It's like the last year of her life [that] she started having problems. She was a really good mom."
It wasn't until Doreen was in her late 20's that she began turning to drugs, and - as a result - ended up falling into the dark underbelly of Albuquerque (which our other victims were already familiar with). Even though she would never be charged or convicted of prostitution, she was incarcerated for a time on drug possession charges, and police at the time believed that she had some involvement in the sex industry.
While spending time in a local jail for this drug charge, Doreen would end up having some dental work done. This created dental records that would ultimately prove handy years later when investigators began trying to identify the victims buried in West Mesa... namely, because Doreen did not have any other accessible dental records.
It is not known when, exactly, Doreen Marquez would go missing. Some loved ones believe she disappeared in October of 2003 - after dropping off one of her daughters at a school near Albuquerque's University Heights - but that would be disputed by a friend, who recalled seeing her months later, in 2004. Regardless, at this point, Doreen was already in the throes of addiction, and had started to disappear for months at a time - only to reappear out of the blue months later. She often left her daughters in the custody of her own father or other loved ones, and - as a result - was not reported missing until December of 2004 (when she would have been 28 years old).
It is unknown when, exactly, Doreen went missing, with the dates being disputed by friends and family today. However, some time between 2003 and 2004 she went missing, and she would stay that way until April of 2009, when her family members were contacted by law enforcement officials, who had identified her as the seventh known victim of this killer.
Police would continue excavating the region around the bodies for approximately two-and-a-half months, hoping to find every single bone and bone fragment from the eleven bodies. By early April, officials would estimate that roughly 90% of the bones had been found, so they continued the painstaking process of carefully tilling the soil, hoping to recover each fragment; some of which had been separated from the rest of the remains due to either construction work in the area or scavenging animals.
On April 24th, 2009, investigators released images to the press of one victim's fingernails, which had a type of beige acrylic paint and an unusual pink design (near the top). It was believed that this might have ties to a local salon due to its specificity, but it did not seem like this lead led to any new information.
The following day - April 25th, 2009 - police ended their excavation of "The Pit," bringing the largest excavation effort in Albuquerque's criminal history to an end. Coincidentally, that same day, the case was featured on the program "America's Most Wanted," which exposed the story to a larger national audience (as it had only been featured in a few national news programs and newspapers beforehand). However, this - as noted by journalist Dan Frosch with the New York Times - only resulted in what Albuquerque police called "psychic" premonitions by some viewers. Again, there was no relevant information received that they could actually work with.
At this point, investigators had a handful of potential suspects: men that had been involved in similar crimes or had perpetrated violence against women in the area. They were now hoping to work through the backstories of these men to compare the timelines, hoping to find out when and where the victims had gone missing and if that correlated with these potential persons-of-interest. That's a subject I'll be exploring in more detail next episode.
It is worth noting that at this point - towards the end of April and the start of May 2009 - seven victims had been identified and four were in the process of being named, but police had still not referred to this crime as the work of a serial killer. Officials continued to hint at these crimes being related to one another and even being the work of a "single offender," but often balked at extrapolating what that meant, exactly. This led many in the public to believe that these crimes might have been related in some unusual method - perhaps via the sex work or drug use shared by the known victims - or might have even been tied to local gangs or cartels. The speculation was endless, and that did nothing to help close the gap between law enforcement and the loved ones of the victims, who continued to critique investigators' approach to the case.
Towards the end of April, it came to light that police officials had met with many of the victims' friends and family members, and asked them to curtail from voicing their thoughts and opinions about the case in a public forum; namely, to the press, as they - the police - believed that it could derail their ongoing investigation. Many loved ones took this as a slight, thinking that police were trying to silence them and simply brush these murdered women under the rug yet again.
Hoping to dissuade these rumors, local police worked with federal officials to put together a $50,000 reward for information, hoping that it would incentivize someone - anyone - to come forward. Over the years, that reward would continue to grow, eventually doubling to $100,000 the following year (2010).
Police continued their investigation, and hoped that identifying the remaining four victims would help find a more definitive link to their suspect. Albuquerque police had requested FBI assistance from the get-go (when they discovered the bodies), and ABQ's police chief Ray Schultz would tell the press what exactly their criminal profilers had compiled early on:
"The profilers have told us that this case has got some very unique characteristics. So there really are no other cases to compare it to - there's no template. That includes everything from the massive (remains) recovery effort to phase two, the investigative phase, which is where we are now."
By the summer of 2009, the FBI had begun fully cooperating with the investigation, and began taking on a more supervisory role moving forward. They worked with the assembled task force of roughly 40 officers, conducting a countless number of interviews; not just in Albuquerque itself, but through the rest of the state and into neighboring states Arizona and Texas. They even made inquiries into other areas of the country; namely in Wisconsin, where a Milwaukee-based killer known as the North Side Strangler had been killing sex workers for over two decades (this killer would eventually be identified as Walter E. Ellis, and he is not believed to have had any involvement in this case).
Working with the FBI, this task force had compiled all of their information into a functional database, which - they hoped - would help them share and disseminate information obtained via separate investigations with ease. It would also allow separate departments to share information without jumping through the typical hoops of bureaucracy.
Months would continue to pass with no real information being passed on to media outlets, leading to the widespread belief that investigators had been stonewalled yet again. Police would admit to receiving hundreds - if not thousands - of tips over that span of time, but they primarily came from prisoners that wanted leniency in exchange for their information, or money-hungry people hoping their hunch could land them the sizable reward fund. None of it, though, seemed to be real, relevant information that investigators could act on.
Despite police serving more than a dozen warrants on numerous POI's over the summer of 2009, they were unable to learn anything definitive about the victims or how they had met their end.
In that same gap of time, the identified victims were finally put to rest (in both public and private ceremonies, which were attended by family and friends). But the names of the unidentified victims continued to elude investigators, including one victim: an unidentified black girl that was substantially less mature than the other victims, who appeared to be no older than a teenager. She had been the victim with the unusual fingernails police had shown to the press back in April, and it was believed that she had not been from Albuquerque. Investigators speculated that she was a sex worker from out of the region, who had been drawn to New Mexico for work (or some other unknown reason).
Based on her remains, police had determined that she was a young African American girl, who had a unique fingernail paint design at the time of her death. She had also broken her nose at some point in her past, and had once received a deep cut on one of her legs... it was even possible that she had once been stabbed, but this was not a fatal wound nor was it related to her murder.
It wasn't until November of 2009 - more than 9 months after the discovery of the bodies in West Mesa - that police finally identified this young, out-of-state victim.
Syllania Edwards was born on November 26th, 1987 in Harris County, Texas, and would go on to live a short-yet-tragic life (which I don't say lightly, considering the context). Syllania never knew her father, and was separated from her mother at the age of 5 after she became incarcerated. So Syllania and her 7 brothers and sisters would have to grow up in foster care, ultimately leading to them all having splintered relationships with one another.
Unlike the other victims found in West Mesa, Syllania was African American, and did not live in Albuquerque. In fact, she didn't even reside in New Mexico, but lived in a foster home about 500 miles east of Albuquerque - in Lawton, Oklahoma - until the summer of 2003. That August, Syllania ran away from her foster home, and was reported missing shortly thereafter. She was only 15 years old at the time, and was listed as an "endangered runaway" out of Oklahoma state.
Syllania's whereabouts would remain a mystery for the better part of the next six years, with the sole exception being a witness report which put her in the Denver area. More specifically, this report alleged that Syllania had been in Aurora, Colorado in May of 2004, having been staying at a motel on East Colfax Street (which was known by law enforcement as a haven for sex workers).
Because of this, police would later theorize that Syllania had gotten involved in some kind of sex work, and might have even been traveling along Interstate 40 as a "circuit girl" (a term police used to describe these women). She might have even been traveling in a group, but the members of this group are still not known to police. According to Albuquerque Police Spokeswoman Nadine Hamby, investigators had reason to believe that she had been traveling in a group with three other women, and had likely gone by two separate aliases during their travels: Chocolate and Mimi.
Other than that, though, not much is known about Syllania's travels or her alleged life as a sex worker.
Because Syllania had not been on anyone's radar prior to her identification, police had no idea that she was even in New Mexico. In addition, she did not fit the killer's profile, with her being younger than the other victims (15 at the time of her disappearance), a different racial group (she was black and the other victims were either Latina or white), and she was not known to have any ties to the other victims (all of whom had worked in "The War Zone" and had some kind of loose connection or familiarity to the others).
Nonetheless, she was one of the bodies found in West Mesa, and would prove to be one of the trickiest to identify for investigators. She did not match the description of any missing woman on Detective Ida Lopez's list, and it wasn't until a sketch was made of her skeletal reconstruction that a possible connection was made. Police then requested dental records from Oklahoma state, which confirmed her identity days later.
Syllania Edwards was the 8th known victim of the killer, and would be given back her name just days before the 9th and 10th victims.
Virginia Cloven was born on August 7th, 1981, and would grow up in Los Chavez - a small town on the southern outskirts of Albuquerque. There, she lived with her family in a small trailer, and quickly became known for having a unique-yet-fiery personality. Her father, Robert Cloven, would later recount to the Albuquerque Journal in 2015:
"She was a really humorous girl, she would take everything in stride. She would try to lie to you, and then come in and tell you the truth anyways two minutes later. The teachers wanted to adopt her."
Despite being a bright presence in so many lives - and a teacher's pet, to boot - not all was pleasant in Virginia's life. In high school, one of her brothers was shot and killed (in an incident that wasn't tied to her later disappearance and murder). Just a few days after that, Virginia would run away from home, and her other brother followed close behind - in perhaps the most striking indictment against their family's home environment at the time.
Virginia would shack up with her boyfriend in Albuquerque, but a short time later tragedy would strike again when he was hit by a car and later become comatose. Now - at the age of 17 - Virginia was broke and homeless, and soon found herself living on the streets of Albuquerque, trying to survive in the the rough part of town known then as "The War Zone." Here, months would begin to pass by in a blur, and Virginia essentially cut off all contact with her prior friends and family; her life began falling off of the rails as she slipped further and further into the downward spiral of sex work and drug addiction.
Before long, it had been years, and Virginia's family had only received sporadic phone calls from the young woman, who had been in-and-out of jail on numerous charges. In June of 2004, Virginia made contact once again with her parents, telling them that she had a new boyfriend that had just been released from prison. According to Virginia, the two were planning to get married, and she seemed excited for the first time in a long time. However, according to Virginia's father, Robert - who spoke to the Albuquerque Journal - this would be the last time that they would ever hear from their wayward daughter:
"We said we'd like to meet him, but we never heard from her again. After that, everything just went dead. We don't [even] celebrate Christmas anymore because it's not home without children."
Virginia Cloven would be reported missing in October of 2004 - roughly four months after her last known contact with her family - and would remain missing until the Fall of 2009, when her parents received the phone call no parent should ever have to take... learning that their daughter was one of the West Mesa victims.
Evelyn Salazar was born in November of 1978, and was the second of these two victims to be identified in November of 2009. Like many of the others, her story had confounded police for some time, but the circumstances of her disappearance threw yet another wrench into the investigation.
At the time of her disappearance, Evelyn was the mother of two daughters - Meriah and Angel - and was noted by her friends and family for being a good cook, a caring mother, and someone who enjoyed the outdoors. Unfortunately, though, she did also have a history of sex work and drug use, but her disappearance would feature a noticeable difference from the other victims of this unknown killer: she wasn't alone.
In March of 2004, 25-year-old Evelyn had left a family gathering with her 15-year-old cousin, Jamie Barela. The two were headed for a park near San Mateo and Gibson Blvds., near the Albuquerque International Airport; which would have put the two right at the edge of the International District (aka "The War Zone").
It is not known if Evelyn and Jamie ever made it to their destination, but we do know that they never came back home... not even Jamie, a 15-year-old with no history of drugs or sex work.
Jamie Barela was born in September of 1988, and would spend her entire life in Albuquerque. She wasn't believed to have any involvement in her cousin's illicit activities, and - by all accounts - was just a regular teenager who might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, she had only ever disappeared on one occasion prior to this, and in that case, she was found to have been staying with her father, having run away from home to be with him.
In March of 2004, Jamie went to the park with her older cousin, and never came back home. It was not known if she had disappeared willingly, but her family did not believe so; after all, she had gone without any of her personal items, and left her curling iron on at-home (which she planned to use later).
The cousins were expected to come back home in about an hour, but were never seen or heard from again. Their family would report them missing on April 3rd, 2004, and Evelyn Salazar (the older cousin) was eventually added to Detective Ida Lopez's list of missing women - whom she called "her girls."
When news broke that the bodies of 11 women had been found in West Mesa roughly five years later - in February of 2009 - the families of both Evelyn and Jamie would speak to local news outlets, hoping against all hope that they weren't among the murdered women. However, over the next year, they would discover that both had been among the victims discovered by Albuquerque police in "The Pit," with Evelyn being identified in November of 2009 (at the same time as Virginia Cloven) and Jamie not being identified until January of the following year (2010).
It was then that police finally put a name to the 11th victim; who, tragically, turned out to be the youngest of the lot. 15-year-old Jamie Barela was only able to be identified through extensive DNA testing, which required months of back-and-forth between police and experts at the University of North Texas.
It had taken nearly an entire year - since the discovery of the first bone in February of 2009 to the identification of Jamie Barela the following January - but police had finally given all eleven victims their names and identities back. After several years of asking what had happened, their family members and other loved ones now had some kind of resolution... but the overarching question remained: who had murdered all of these young women?
Roughly one year had passed since the first bone had been found in the abandoned 100-acre lot in West Mesa, which police had spent the better part of three months tearing apart. In their quest, they had pursued bones, bone fragments, hairs, fingernails, and any other shred of evidence that they could get their hands on, hoping that it would lead them to this mysterious killer's identity.
Even though it had been a year, police were not believed to be any closer to finding this killer. But after months of painstaking research and collaborate efforts with law enforcement agencies throughout the nation, detectives had been able to figure out the names of all eleven victims, whose stories gave investigators a rough timeline to work with.
On May 11th, 2003, Monica Candelaria was last seen by witnesses near Atrisco Dr. and Central Avenue in southwest Albuquerque. She would be reported missing two weeks later.
In February of 2004, Veronica Romero was last seen getting into a white truck near Wyoming Blvd. and Central Avenue. She would be reported missing by her family roughly two weeks later, on Valentine's Day.
In March of 2004, Evelyn Salazar and her cousin, Jamie Barela, had gone missing after heading to a park nearby their family's home (in the area of town known as "The War Zone"). They were reported missing days later, on April 3rd.
In May of 2004, Syllania Edwards was reportedly last seen in Denver, Colorado. She had gone missing the prior October - from Lawton, Oklahoma - and was believed to have been traveling along Interstate 40 with other sex workers prior to her murder.
In June of 2004, Virginia Cloven was last heard from, after calling her parents and letting them know about her new boyfriend, who - according to her - had just gotten out of prison. She would never call back, and was reported missing that October.
In August of 2004, Cinnamon Elks failed to call her mother on her birthday, which she had always done. She was reported missing days later, and was last known to be alive when she was last arrested by Albuquerque Police, in July of 2004.
That same month that Cinnamon Elks went missing - August of 2004 - Julie Nieto was last seen by her family and was later reported missing. She had been friends with Cinnamon in the past, and it is believed that their disappearances might have been related in some way.
In December of 2004, Doreen Marquez was reported missing by her family. There is some discrepancy on when she had gone missing - her family says she was last seen the prior October, while a friend alleges she was alive into 2004 - but several months would pass before police would be made aware that she had gone missing.
In February of 2005, Michelle Valdez was reported missing by her family. She had been missing for an undetermined amount of time, and the discovery of her remains would reveal that she had been four months pregnant at the time of her death.
Finally - in March of 2005 - Victoria Chavez would be reported missing by her family. She had not been seen or heard from in over a year - dating back to late 2003 or early 2004 - so the circumstances of her murder are unknown.
This timeline painted the portrait of a killer who struck over a roughly two-year period, between the Spring of 2003 and the Spring of 2005. Whoever he or they were, they had primarily targeted Latina sex workers that had a history of drug use, but had not discriminated: they had also gone after white and black victims, most of whom were known sex workers that frequented the "International District," the area of town known then as "The War Zone." In addition, this killer also seemed to prefer younger women, with their victims age ranging between 15 and 32.
All of the victims had been buried in the same plot of land in West Mesa, but had all been buried without clothing or personal items... which was perhaps an attempt by the killer to make their identities harder to figure out. Or, it was also possible that he or they had preferred to keep the clothing and belongings as some kind of keepsake or memento.
Lastly, the cause-of-death for all eleven women had been impossible to determine, due to the period of time that they had been buried. But it was believed that they had each been choked or strangled, due to the lack of any other damage to the remains (such as there being no visible stab wounds or bullet holes).
All of this information helped provide investigators with a lot of possible avenues for investigation, but most of it - when paired together - made it difficult to digest. After all, this was a roughly two-year span of time in which eleven women had been killed - most of whom lived off of the grid, and kept low profiles (not only legally, but personally). This was a killer that seemed to strike indiscriminately, having no real victim profile other than a vague age range and accessibility. This was a killer that might keep mementos of his victims - or who simply had the wherewithal to destroy any evidence that could be linked back to him. And finally, this was a killer who killed his victims by-hand - choosing not to use guns or knives - which made the circumstances of their deaths impossible to determine.
All of this is what investigators had to work with as they tried to narrow down their list of suspects to a reasonable size, trying to determine whether or not this serial offender had been responsible for other crimes in the region. You see, Detective Ida Lopez - who had originally included most of these victims on her list of missing women - had noted numerous other sex workers that had gone missing in the same area at the same time, but whose bodies had not been found.
Had this killer simply buried them in another area of the desolate terrain? Or were they not connected to this crime spree at all?
Had this killer struck again in another region? Maybe even another part of the country?
Was this even a single killer - could it have been a group? Or was this tied to some kind of gang or cartel or sex trafficking ring?
These were all questions that investigators had to ask themselves as they reached out into the dark, hoping that they could find an answer. Unfortunately, the months would begin to slip into years, and there would be no shortage of suspects to investigate.
That's on the next episode of Unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Published on September 8th, 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, and Sue Kirk
Original music created by myself through Amper Music
Other music created and composed by Ailsa Traves