West Mesa Murders Series Part II: Journalists Discuss Coverage
We brought you the first story in this series about the status of the West Mesa murders investigation and how families of the victims are coping. No suspects have been named, but Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz says the case is open and ongoing.
The story of the city’s missing and murdered women became known across the state and nationally when the mass grave was discovered early last year. But one question in the minds of some is “why hadn’t anyone known before about the missing women?” Police investigate crime, but the community only knows what’s going on if the media covers it.
KUNM was not contacted about their cases prior to the discovery of the graves and while law enforcement officials may have reached out to local reporters, Chief Schultz is the only APD official making comments on the investigation. So we were unable to speak to investigators about their early efforts to publicize information about the missing women.
But Schultz says as early as 2005, APD missing persons Detective Ida Lopez had noted a pattern. He says Lopez did try to get the word out…
“I know that Ida, when she was trying to get the story published, had went to several different media outlets,” he said. “Only one was interested in the story and that was the city’s afternoon paper.”
But that’s not how Maggie Shepard remembers it. She was a community crime reporter for the city’s afternoon paper, The Albuquerque Tribune. In 2007, she was working on a story about prostitution and she’d gone on a ride-along with the vice unit. The officers had a flyer with a list of women who had been arrested for prostitution who were all missing.
Shepard said she was fascinated. “There's a list of people who are missing and I've never heard about this and what's going on?”
It took her a while to persuade APD to let her write about the list, Shepard said. Sometimes media coverage can interfere with police investigations. But eventually she did and that’s when she met Ida Lopez, the APD missing persons detective.
Shepard said Lopez called the women on the list “her girls,” and that she was the one who had made the flyer and passed it to the vice unit. But Shepard said she didn’t get the feeling they were thinking serial killer.
“They were happy that I was helping them talk about it, not trying to hide it,” Shepard said, “not trying to hide that they weren't working on alot. They weren't trying to make it seem anything other than what it was, a list of missing prostitutes.”
But Shepard wanted to go deeper into the histories of the women. Many had struggled with substance abuse and all had been reported missing by people who cared about them.
Shepard’s story about one couple’s attempts to find their daughter ran on the front page of the Tribune in 2007. It was the first and only major print story to focus specifically on Lopez’s list prior to the discovery of remains in early 2009, when a woman hiking with her dog came upon them by chance.
Nine of the missing women on the list, plus two others, had been killed and buried on the West Mesa.
During the weeks after the first victims were identified, some members of the community spoke out against the media focus on their criminal histories.
“I became aware very early on that drug addicted prostitutes just wasn’t very respectful,” said Jeff Proctor. He was the West Side crime reporter for the Albuquerque Journal when the mass grave was discovered. He says the fact that so many of the victims had been arrested for prostitution was important to report.
“The criminal history is what it is,” he said, “as much as I feel and have always felt their lifestyle choices doesn’t make them less than anyone else, that is the common link, that is the common thread that they shared, [and] probably the way they got picked up and killed.”
But critics say the incessant repetition of words like ‘prostitute’ and ‘drug addict’ served to make it seem like the women were responsible for their own deaths because of their criminal histories.
Jessica Aranda was with the Southwest Women’s Law Center at the time. In an interview with KUNM in March, she said the media coverage was following a familiar pattern of blaming female victims of crime.
“The focus on these women’s characters and lifestyles rather than the details of the investigation just feeds into that cycle in which people don’t identify with these women, they don’t see these women as part of our community,” Aranda said.
When people don’t identify with the victims of crimes, Aranda said, it leads to an ambivalence about the victims and about whether the crimes are solved.
Jeff Proctor eventually changed the way he was writing about the victims. He started using phrases like ‘struggled with addiction’ to describe their substance abuse histories. And he wrote that they had lifestyles ‘that included prostitution.’
Proctor reported in his stories that investigators were looking into a list of missing women but it was Joline Guttierrez Krueger who got their photos printed on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal.
“The thing that was missing to me was putting faces,” she said, “if we had a sense of who else might be out there, maybe families would come forward and help police in their investigation.”
Guttierrez Krueger had worked with Maggie Shepard at the Albuquerque Tribune before she started writing opinion columns for the Journal.
“I remember talking to my editor, I have that list, we could run it,” she said she told them.
But she says her editor hesitated. Eventually, Guttierrez Krueger said, her editor got fully behind the idea of running the photos. Her column calling for a closer look into the cases of all the missing women ran, and immediately Guttierrez Krueger said she got frantic calls from police spokespeople.
“I think that APD was stunned,” she reclaled. “They didn't remember that we had that list, you would have thought it was a good thing to get out there but they hadn’t thought that.”
Krueger credits her column with making it possible for families of the victims to get in touch with each other. APD assigned more personnel to the West Mesa investigation and she said that might not have happened if the families hadn’t been able to unite and press for law enforcement to prioritize the case.
On a breezy late summer day and I stood near where the women’s remains were found with freelance journalist Laura Paskus who writes for local and national publications. She’s been working on the West Mesa murders case for months. From the spot at 118th street, the city of Albuquerque spreads east across the valley to the base of the Sandia mountains.
There’s a wall and beyond it you can see the plots of land that were scoured and sifted by investigators.
“Now that I know where these women were buried,” Paskus said, I feel I can always see this from wherever I am.”
To the west, sagebrush, yuccas, and wild grasses carpet the mesa as it rises toward a startlingly blue sky.
“If we were to go walk out there,” Paskus said, “you can see the trash, people are completely comfortable dropping their trash and unwanted belongings, I guess.”
Paskus said this story is about more than just the women who were buried here. She said it’s about broader issues of poverty, drug addiction, and the exploitation of women.
As we drive the 25 minutes or so back to Albuquerque, Paskus recounted how she recently pitched the story to a national magazine that’s well known for its progressive coverage of social justice issues. She thought it would be a good fit but the editor told her the story just wasn’t compelling or surprising.
“If 11 women murdered and 6 missing, that's not compelling or surprising, what is?” she wondered.
In the third part of this series we hear from a woman who struggled with drug addiction and then got into a program that helped her get her life back.