There are headlines around the country about officers abusing their power, coercing, assaulting or trafficking sex workers. Not being able to trust police enough to report violent experiences is part of what makes people especially vulnerable to serial killers and rapists. Now, 10 years after a mass grave was discovered on the West Mesa, the Albuquerque Police Department is trying to rebuild trust and stop that from happening again.
Police put out a call in late January for information about a guy named Timothy Bachicha, saying he’d been picking women up off the street, holding them hostage in his van and raping them.
Sgt. Amanda Wild said she knows that sex workers in Albuquerque often don’t feel safe reaching out to police—even when they’re badly injured.
"So we want to say, Hey look, you’re not alone. Regardless of what classification or population you are, the Albuquerque Police Department believes. And we want to be there for the victim," Wild said.
People KUNM talked to for this story said when they reported crimes to police, in the past, they were the ones who wound up being arrested for prostitution, or they were treated like it was their own fault.
But Wild said she’s only looking for information on assailants so she can catch them. She’s been with the Sex Crimes Unit at APD for seven years and said this communication breakdown is a public safety issue: Uncaught predators often become more and more violent over time.
"That’s the one thing that we want to prevent," she said. "If we can get somebody apprehended early on, then we may not end up with a homicide."
A 2014 FBI study of what the bureau calls serial prostitute killers shows that almost all people who commit this crime—92 percent—were arrested by police for something else before their final arrest and conviction for multiple murders.
Earlier this month, Wild called the first meeting of a new interdisciplinary team that includes advocates who work with vulnerable people who don’t trust police. APD’s goal is to get information out to people who are at the highest risk of experiencing violence and build trust so people might choose to report crimes.
"We’re hoping that we can increase proper reporting," she said. "If we know where a perpetrator is frequenting, we can try to assist with our undercover officers in those areas, which is one of the ways that we were able to apprehend Timothy Bachicha."
Bachicha, the guy who police say held women in his van, is in prison today. He was indicted on charges of kidnapping, rape and battery. Police are still looking for more info.
Christine Barber sat in a former hair salon on East Central that will soon be home base for her organization, Street Safe. She’s not a law enforcement official, but she’s pretty much been doing what Sgt. Wild’s talking about for a decade now, working closely with sex workers and women experiencing homelessness.
Barber started her work in the wake of the discovery of the mass grave on the West Mesa 10 years ago this month. Ever since then, she’s put out a weekly list, keeping track of who’s dangerous—and who’s disappeared.
"When the next West Mesa serial killer happens—because there will be another serial killer targeting this population—they can just go look at that list," Barber said, "because he’ll be on it, because that’s how they get started."
Barber was thrilled to learn about APD’s new team after all these years but said there’s still a ways to go to rebuild trust— four women told her they were attacked by Bachicha, and they won’t talk to police.
"There are serial rapists still out there preying on the women every day, who believe—like the West Mesa serial killer did—that these are throwaway people," she said, "and no one actually cares about them, and they can do what they want to them, because they don’t matter."
These guys, Barber said, are your neighbor, your boss. They’re here in town, leading normal-seeming lives. Survivors, for instance, reported seeing a baby seat in the front seat of Bachicha’s van.
Viciouzz said she’s been on the streets for 14 years. "I mean they start up as the nicest person, and in the blink of an eye, they just, their whole personality, their whole demeanor, everything changes," she said.
She didn't want to use her real name for safety reasons, but she had a recommendation for officers on this new APD team. "Just ask people. Make them feel safe. Make them feel like they’re not going to be at fault," she said. "I mean, people skills. I think they need better people skills."
Viciouzz said knowing that police protect some people and not others is hard on her. "It doesn’t make me feel like a person, you know? That’s just it."
And knowing that whoever dug those graves on the West Mesa is still out there, she said, haunts her all the time.