If you’re from Albuquerque, then you know about the West Mesa murders. It’s the sad and gruesome case of 11 women and one unborn fetus found in 2009 out on the vast mesa to the west of our city. A woman named Christine Ross and her dog Ruca found a human femur on their daily walk on the mesa across the street from her house. The case garnered national attention, as Albuquerque Police, along with forensic investigators, FBI and a host of other law enforcement dug up almost 100 acres of set-to-be-developed land. Women’s Memorial Park is a mollifying name for the hell that must have taken place out here for these women, whether they were killed on the mesa, or just buried there. It was, and still is, hell for the families left behind with so many unanswered questions.
In 2007 APD detective Ida Lopez was featured on a front-page article of the now-defunct Albuquerque Tribune. She spoke with journalist Maggie Shepard about how she had a file of at least 17 missing women she called “her girls” from the streets of Albuquerque. They had all gone missing from 2001 to 2006. Most of the 17 women had been in and out of the drug addiction lifestyle of the streets, and many had prostitution charges on their records as well. Of the original 17 women, the 11 found on the mesa were: Cinnamon Elks, Veronica Romero, Monica Candelaria, Syllania Edwards, Julie Nieto, Jamie Barela, Doreen Marquez, Virginia Cloven, Evelyn Salazar and Michele Valdez (who was six months pregnant). Both Syllania Edwards and Jamie Barela were only 15 at the time of their disappearance. Edwards was also the only African-American victim and the only victim from out of state. She was reported as a runaway in 2003 by police in Lawton, Oklahoma.
There have always been many unanswered questions with regard to the timeline of the disappearance and murder of each of the women. Due to lifestyle it has been hard to track an exact date of when they went missing, although several family members can remember the last time they saw their loved one. No cause of death has been made public, and no exact date of death has been reported for any of the victims.
To this day no official suspects have ever been named. Albuquerque Police maintain that this is not a cold case and say they have a task force of several detectives who still work on the case. Of the handful of persons of interest identified in the aftermath of the dig, only two remain in the public eye. Lorenzo Montoya, a pressman at a local printer, was killed in 2006 after killing a 19-year-old woman named Shericka Hill he had hired online as a dancer at his home. Her boyfriend, Frederick Williams, followed her to the house and shot Montoya outside of his home as he was trying to dispose of her body. Williams claimed he shot in self-defense after Montoya started shooting at him. At the time law enforcement said they didn’t believe this was his first time. Then Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz told media, “This is too brutal of a crime to be his first one.” Montoya lived roughly 3 miles away from the burial site of the 11 women in the South Valley.
Convicted rapist Joseph Blea is the second person of interest. The 63-year-old Blea had a landscape business in the South Valley when he was convicted in 2015 on rape and kidnapping charges from multiple cases ranging from 1988 to 1993. He was dubbed the “Mid-School Rapist” because he was known to stalk his victims from the area around McKinley Middle School. His youngest victim was 13 years old. Records show that Blea frequented sex workers on east Central Ave. Blea is currently serving a 90-year prison sentence in Otero County Correctional Facility and has never been charged with any connection to the West Mesa murders. Law enforcement has never made any connection between Lorenzo Montoya and Joseph Blea.
Beyond the celebratory mariachi and the congratulatory speeches to each political figure who pitched in any money or effort to get the park finished, there was an undercurrent of grief. State Senator Bill O’Neill broke down in tears as he took the podium. “This hurts my heart. Please know that we remember your loved ones at every session. We have a moment of silence every year. You will not be forgotten, and we are going to get better as a community.”
Angelica Garcia was only 8 years old when her mom, Michelle Valdez, went missing. Michelle’s remains were found on the West Mesa in 2009. She remembers her mom’s smile and a joyful personality. Angelica is now 24 years old and expecting a child herself. “I can’t go to the cemetery, I’d rather come here. It’s the last place she was.” Before Michelle disappeared in 2004, Angelica would see her mom for birthdays and holidays. “My grandfather looked for her every day. He tried to find out what happened to her until he got sick and passed away in 2014. He would have been happy to see this park.”
Christine Ross and Ruca (which means “woman” in Spanish) drove from Flagstaff, AZ for the dedication. There’s even a marker at the park commemorating and thanking Ruca for finding the girls. The families of the victims made a dog tag for Ruca’s collar that says “West Mesa Women.” “I don’t know about you, but I believe in divine intervention. I believe the Creator sent Ruca to find your girls and bring them home,” said Christine.
“I’ll never forget my sister, these women and that unborn baby,” said Julie “Bubbles” Gonzales, sister of Doreen Marquez, who was the third victim found. “It was worth the wait. I’m relieved I have a place now to come and hang out with my family and friends. It’s about time that I let my sister go and be free to fly with angels.”