West Mesa Murders Series Part I: Still No Suspects Named
It’s been over a year and a half since the discovery of the remains of 11 women buried on Albuquerque’s West Mesa and still no one knows who killed them or why.
Some of the victims’ families remain convinced there are more remains to be found of missing women. Other family members have started to move on and rebuild their lives after years of uncertainty.
Dan Valdez gazed down at his daughter’s grave in the Sunset Memorial Park in Albuquerque. There’s a little carving of a butterfly in the left-hand corner of the headstone and it reads, ‘She will be missed by many.’
The pain of loss still felt fresh for some families, but Valdez said he’s working to focus on the present.
“Life goes on, it's time to set things aside and focus in on the important part of our lives, and that’s the living,” he said. “There's nothing we can do about our daughters that were murdered, but we are still alive and we have family to take care of and get our lives together and move forward.”
Eleanor Griego stands nearby. Her daughter Julie Nieto was also killed and buried on the mesa. She left behind three boys, and Griego is raising them.
“Everyday I tell them, I'm your grama not your mom,” she said. “I don't want them to forget their mom, and they’re not going to. I'm not a replacement mom.”
Griego said losing her daughter has changed the way she relates to her grandsons.
“I sometimes get kind of scared, what if I’m overprotective of them, what if I am suffocating them, which I think I do sometimes,” she said. “I can't let them walk out the door without chasing them down to see where they're going.”
Griego and Valdez have kept in touch since the discovery of what some are calling the largest crime scene in Albuquerque’s history. They came to the cemetery to attend the burial of 15-year-old Jamie Barela. She was the last of the West Mesa victims to be identified.
The investigation is ongoing, but Griego said she doesn’t want to know all the details until they actually catch someone. Valdez said he feels the same way.
“I feel better and can move on, and it not turning into knots in my stomach, ignorance is beautiful,” he said, “It’s golden.” Griego agreed.
But for Jamie Barela’s mom, Jayne Perea, more information is exactly what she wants and she said she isn’t getting enough of it from law enforcement.
“Nobody ever has answers for us,” Perea said. “We ask questions and they never have answers. I don’t want them thinking ‘oh, well your daughter’s gone, so that’s it.’ No. I’m going to keep on asking until I find answers.”
Jamie was last seen one night six years ago. She went out with her cousin, Evelyn Salazar, who was also killed and buried on the Mesa. For Perea, it could have been yesterday.
“I still remember what my daughter was wearing,” she said, “she was wearing blue jeans with high top shoes and a t-shirt and her curling iron was on, and she said ‘I'll be back, mom, later,’ and she never came back. To never see your daughter again...”
Ray Schultz, Chief of the Albuquerque Police Department, said they will continue to follow up leads. The West Mesa case is unique, he said, because there are 11 victims and 11 unique families who want answers that police are not always at liberty to divulge.
“I know some family members say we haven't given info quick enough,” he said. “We haven't been able to because we know someone is going to go and give that info out to the media. And if its in the paper or on the news before we question someone, they may have the answer that we don't want to hear because they've seen it on the news.”
No suspects have been named in the case but Schultz said keeping the investigation broad should help it stand up in court.
Eventually when an arrest is made,” he explained, “of course there is going to be a defense team [that] is gonna say, ‘you only looked at my client didn't look at these other people who could have been suspects.’ So, we are making sure that we are looking at both strong and not so strong suspects to eliminate them.”
Last month, local police along with the FBI served search warrants and seized materials from the photo studio and residences of Ron Erwin in Joplin, Missouri. According to reports, Erwin spent time in Albuquerque during the years when many of the women went missing. The materials included photographs, business records and other forensic evidence.
Police say Erwin has not been named a suspect in the case and investigators may take a month or more to analyze all of the seized materials.
That’s frustrating to Jayne Perea. She said waiting for information about the investigation is like the years of waiting she did after filing a missing persons report for her daughter Jamie in 2004. She doesn’t think her report, or those of the other victims, were treated with enough urgency.
“That’s what really gets to me,” she said, “is nobody done nothing for these girls at the time. Maybe if somebody had been out there, our girls wouldn’t be missing right now.”
According to police, most of the women had drug addiction and prostitution in common, but officials say nothing in Jamie’s background suggests that she had gotten involved in drugs or prostitution. She had gone missing once the year before and was found with her father. Schultz says these types of personal histories complicate missing persons investigations.
“Particularly with this set of victims,” he said, “most of them, not all, but most, it was not uncommon for them to go missing on their own volition, days or weeks at a time.”
And Schultz said, some of the victims weren’t reported missing until months after they had last been seen.
“We try to figure out the best way to investigate cases like this, and it’s difficult,” he said. “Offenders in these types of cases are predators, they know exactly what they are doing. This population of women who are often involved in prostitution, they can take advantage of [them] not going to be noticed as missing because of the way society looks at prostitution, unfortunately.”
But whatever people may think of the West Mesa victims, Jamie Barela’s family members are broken-hearted over her murder. On a windy day earlier this year they attended her service at Sunset Memorial Park in Albuquerque. They each got a crinkly red cellophane balloon to release in remembrance of her. “We love you Jamie,” folks said as they released the balloons into the sky.
While friends and family of West Mesa victims will remember the women for who they were, the way that society views teenage runaways, prostitution and drug addiction often has an impact on the way women are treated – by law enforcement, by public institutions, and by the media.
In the second report of our series, we hear from journalists who covered the missing women and the West Mesa murders.