West Mesa Murders Series Part III: Program Serves Women After Jail
In our series on the West Mesa murders we brought you an update on the investigation and we’ve taken a look at media coverage of the victims. Now, we hear from a woman has overcome some of the same challenges the West Mesa victims were struggling with - poverty, drug addiction, and incarceration.
Marci Torres doesn’t smile a whole lot and maybe that’s not so surprising. She’s experienced a lot of sorrow. Torres said maybe that’s why she wants to go to school to be a mortician.
“I think it's because I've dealt with a lot of death in my life,” she said, “mom's dads, aunts cousins, uncles. My family, whenever someone passed, they would ask me to help them.”
Torres left home when she was 17 and she said a few years later her mother was murdered by an abusive partner.
“I did my mom's funeral when I was 20,” she said, “her hair, makeup and getting everything ready. It was something that made me feel good, me, instead of somebody else.”
Torres said her mother’s side of the family blamed her for her mother’s death. Without enough support from family, she said, her recreational drug use spun out of control. She started selling drugs to support her own habit while her four girls lived with their dad.
Torres was in and out of jail and after being locked up for about 8 months, she heard about a program for women who’ve been incarcerated and have no where to live once they get out. She jumped at the chance. It’s been two years now and Torres said she’s clean and sober, taking community college classes.
“My whole life is turned around, I have my daughters living back with me, my whole life is good right now,” she said.
Torres said it’s all because of Crossroads for Women. It was founded by Lisa Simpson. The main office is located in an old 19th century house in downtown Albuquerque, chosen for its homey feel. There are sofas in the group counseling room and racks of professional clothes for clients to use for job interviews.
“This is where our family specialist is,” Simpson said as she showed me around, “you can see that it is made to be quite accommodating to children.”
Clients can have their children come live with them while they go through the program, and there are counseling services for the kids, too. The walls are covered with pages from children’s coloring books.
Most Crossroads clients are not only struggling with reintegration into society after being in jail. Many also have histories of childhood sexual abuse, drug addiction, and cognitive and mental health issues that have long gone untreated.
Over nearly 10 years, Crossroads has expanded to include services Simpson said are designed to help clients regain control of their lives. These include substance abuse counseling, mental health care, GED programs, and career skills classes.
“Their life experience is such they don't have life skills, go to interview, know the right demeanor eye contact things of that sort,” she said.
Few Crossroads clients have a network of people to lean on for help, and Simpson said it’s this lack of a support system and access to services that puts women like the West Mesa victims in such a vulnerable position.
One of the victims, Evelyn Salazar, had been a Crossroads client for a time before she went missing. Her mother was a Crossroads client, too, but according to police reports, officers who investigated were not familiar with Crossroads and there was little follow up on Salazar’s disappearance.
In fact, according to missing persons reports, the investigations into the disappearances of at least 5 of the West Mesa victims involved little to no investigation at all. And many of the women weren’t entered into the National Crime Information database until months, or even years, after they were reported missing.
Republican state Senator Sander Rue represents the West Side of Albuquerque. He sponsored a bill that went into effect earlier this year that changes the way missing persons reports are handled by law enforcement.
“Nobody should be sitting there at a desk saying, ‘I think this one we can wait,’” he said. “That decision shouldn't be in anybody's hand. It should immediately go into the system. And if there is resolution, take them out of the system. I don't think anyone should be making the decision of relevance or import.”
The new law requires officers to receive training on missing persons policies and it describes penalties for failing to follow them. It also requires officials to enter missing persons into state and national databases within two hours.
But Rue saud there’s more to it than just police procedures.
“I think we all need to step back and ask ourselves some questions,” he said, “as a community, ‘how did we respond?’ [It] raises some interesting questions that we all have to look at.”
For Democratic state Senator Linda Lopez who represents the West Side and South Valley, those questions include issues of race, class and sexism – and how people in the community view women with substance abuse and criminal histories.
“We don't have enough of a dialogue, who cares what their lifestyles were, they were murdered, hello!”
Lopez said she thinks the West Mesa victims were targeted because they were vulnerable. And she says, they were probably profiled as Latinas. Most of the victims were all or part Hispanic. Lopez said the missing persons legislation barely scratches the surface of issues that affect working class and poor women in New Mexico.
“Just as much value as anyone in another part of the city, still, murdered citizens who were thrown away. And we have a disregard for that life, we don't have that dialogue, we haven't had it, just a brief snippet last year,” she said.
And that brief snippet of a conversation didn’t do much to for Teresa Fresquez. She reported her daughter Nina Herron missing in 2005. I met with her recently at a local restaurant to talk about her daughter. Herron had been struggling with drug addiction, but Fresquez said she was devoted to her young son and wouldn’t have left. For Fresquez, the pain of not knowing is difficult to bear.
“When they found the remains February 2nd, that's my daughters birthday,” she said, “I just thought it was her, one of them girls. I was just thinking that all these other mothers, that they have closure, I just wanted to be like them, I just want to find her.”
But Herron’s remains were not found on the West Mesa last year, and her whereabouts remain unknown.
Some families and friends of the missing and murdered women are calling for increased attention to missing person’s cases and the West Mesa murders investigation. A demonstration is planned for tomorrow morning at 11 o’clock in front of APD headquarters in downtown Albuquerque.
According to her missing person’s file, Nina Herron’s case remains open. It’s assigned to APD’s missing persons Detective Ida Lopez along with the cases of at least 5 other women with similar descriptions and histories who went missing around the same time.