Updated: Mar 9, 2020
Note: This case is a bit lengthy and there are quite a few photos here. I did my best to make all the photos about the same size so the page wouldn't take a long time to load. For whatever reason, some of them still ended up bigger than the others. I have no idea why this happened, and I apologize if it slows your browser down.
So, just a note to start things off: This case takes place in New Mexico. If you watched my last true crime video about Brianna Lopez, you know that case took place in New Mexico as well. I bear no ill will to New Mexico or its people, and I’m not purposefully choosing murder cases from the state to make them look bad. I’ve wanted to cover today’s case for a few months, and the fact that I had two cases in a row out of the same state is pure coincidence.
Today’s case concerns an unsolved string of murders in Albuquerque, murders that most people believe are the work of a serial killer. The victims were killed sometime between 2003 and 2005, though the murders could have started as early as 2001. The murders have colloquially been called ‘the West Mesa murders,’ and the alleged serial killer that committed them has come to be known as the West Mesa Bone Collector or The Bone Collector of New Mexico. Let’s take a closer look at this case.
So, first off — what is the West Mesa? This case takes place in Albuquerque, so why is it called the ‘West Mesa’ murders? The West Mesa is a landmass in the desert in or near Albuquerque. And, as we’ll see in a little while, it was a pivotal area in this story.
But first, let’s talk about Albuquerque’s East Central corridor. This area is frequented by prostitutes, as well as those who want to solicit one. But between 2001 and 2005, an unusually high number of prostitutes went missing in this area.
I’m going to give you the names and circumstances of some of these missing women now. But I will let you know there is a fair amount of contradictory information in these reports, maybe a bit more than most cases. Because these women were involved in drugs and sex work, their families and friends would often go months at a time without hearing from them. So there’s often a gap between their last sighting and missing persons reports being filed. I think that might contribute to the misinformation, though there is a decent amount of it in most of these cases anyway.
There’s also varying amounts of information on these women. Some had plenty of details, while others had very few. I tried to give enough details to get a sense of the circumstances surrounding these disappearances.
Monica Candelaria was reported missing on May 11, 2003, almost two weeks after she’d last been seen in the South Valley. Investigators heard from her friends that she had been killed and buried on the mesa. They followed up on this rumor, but it led nowhere and her disappearance was eventually turned over to cold case detectives. She was 21.
Doreen Marquez was last seen in October 2003. Like most of the other missing women, Doreen had struggled with drugs for years, but had finally gotten clean earlier that month. She was last seen either dropping off one of her children at school or walking alone in a neighborhood. She was 27.
Doreen was reported missing by her sister at least three different times. When her sister went to the police station years later, she learned the reports were never filed or even completed.
Victoria Chavez was last seen either in 2003 or 2004 after a night out with her family. While out with them, she got a call from her boyfriend and told her mom she’d meet up with the family again later that night. She never showed up. Her mom assumed she’d gone back to her “wild life.” She did report her daughter missing about a year after she’d last been seen, in March of either 2004 or 2005. Victoria was 24.
Veronica Romero was last seen by her family on either February 14 or February 15, 2004. She was reported missing that same day — whichever day it was. She was about 28.
27-year-old Evelyn Salazar was last seen at a family gathering. She and her cousin, 15-year-old Jamie Barela, left to go to a park in southeast Albuquerque. Neither of them were seen again. Jamie was the only victim not involved with drugs or sex work.
Syllannia Edwards ran away from a girl’s group home in Lawton, Oklahoma in 2003 at the age of 15. She was reported missing that year, and spotted in Colorado the following year. She wasn’t seen again.
24-year-old Virginia Cloven was reported missing in June 2004 by her dad, who hadn’t spoken to her in four months. The last time they spoke, she said she was moving in with her boyfriend. I have no idea who or where he is.
Cinnamon Elks was last seen after being arrested in 2004. I’m not sure how long she was in police custody or when she was released. A month after the arrest she was reported missing by her mom, who knew something was wrong when her daughter didn’t call her for her birthday in August of that year. Another source said Cinnamon was reported missing by her cousin. She was 32.
Julie Nieto wast seen in August 2004 at her grandfather’s house. She left to pick up her son at the school bus, and was later reported missing by her cousin. One source said Julie was 23, another said 24 and yet another said 28.
Gina Michelle Valdez was last seen in September 2004. Her mother knew something was wrong when Michelle didn’t call for her birthday a few days later. Michelle also missed her daughter’s birthday party later that month, something she had never done. She was reported missing the following year, either by her mother or her father. She was 22. I’m not sure if her loved ones knew at the time but, when she disappeared, Michelle was four months pregnant with her third child.
Some time soon after her disappearance, Michelle’s mother contacted a local TV station, maybe multiple stations, asking them to air something about the disappearance, but none would.
Some sources have referred to Michelle by her full name, Gina Michelle Valdez. Others have just called her Michelle. I’ll call her Michelle from here on out for clarity.
In 2005, Albuquerque detective Ida Lopez noticed the unusually high level of disappearances. In August of that year, she complied a list that included all the women listed above with the exception of Syllannia Edwards, who hadn’t gone missing in Albuquerque. The list was published in the Albuquerque Tribune in 2007.
On February 2, 2009, Albuquerque resident Christine Ross was walking her dog on the west side of the city when she found a bone on the trail. She thought the bone looked strange, so she took a photo and sent it to her sister, who was a nurse. Her sister said the bone looked like a human femur. Christine contacted the Albuquerque Police, and testing confirmed the bone was human.
Detectives began combing through the area of the city’s West Mesa, where the bone had been found. Investigators worked around the clock for about two and a half months looking for evidence. What they found was a mass grave covering about 100 acres, which they eventually began referring to as “the pit.”
The bodies were buried in “shallow graves” in what has been referred to multiple times as the largest crime scene in the city’s history. One source even called it the largest crime scene in United States history. At a few points, the possibility of a second burial site have been brought up, but nothing substantial has ever been found.
The first victim was identified on February 10, 2009. The body was that of Victoria Chavez. One by one, the missing women were ID’d in the following order:
Gina Michelle Valdez (who was four months pregnant at the time of her death)
Jamie Barela was the last to be identified on January 26, 2010. Other than Michelle Valdez’s unborn child, she was the youngest victim found in the pit.
Altogether, the victims consisted of 9 adult women, two teenage girls and one unborn child. Most sources put the victim count at 11, though if you count the unborn child it would technically be 12. At one point, investigators did think tere was an extra body, but it turned out some of the bones they thought belonged to different people were actually from the same body.
The deaths were all ruled homicide, but the remains were too decomposed to determine cause of death. There were no obvious signs of trauma on the bones. Investigators believe they were probably all killed and buried between 2003 and 2005.
After Michelle Valdez was identified, one of the same news stations her family contacted after her disappearance got in touch with them, asking for information. They refused to speak to them, still angry from the alleged earlier dismissal. I don’t know which news station this allegation is directed toward or any other details.
Police believe one person was responsible for burying all the bodies. However, a few weeks after the discovery of the mass grave, police chief Ray Schultz said it was “too premature” to say the deaths were all the result of a serial killer. I’m not sure if he or any of the other investigators still believe this. Most sources and people who talk about this case seem to think these homicides are the work of a serial killer.
Because the bodies were a few years old, Schultz also didn’t think Albuquerque residents had to worry about an active serial killer at that time.
At the time of the mass grave discovery, Mike Geier, who was the head of the Albuquerque Police Department’s violent crimes unit, was confident the case would be solved within the year. And investigators worked hard at it. They interviewed people working on the east Central Corridor as well as some of the womens’ ex boyfriends. They took homemade missing persons posters to the New Mexico state fair and collected DNA samples from family and friends. They followed leads inside New Mexico as well as Texas and Arizona.
At one point, they got a tip about a man with a shrine to the victims in his home. They interviewed him but ultimately determined he had nothing to do with the murders and was just “doing his own kind of analysis on the case.” (according to Mike Geier).
In 2010, police released photos of seven unidentified women and asked for the public’s help in identifying them, believing they may be connected to the West Mesa murders. One of the women was eventually identified; she’d died several years earlier, but wasn’t believed to be connected to the murders. I read another report that said one other woman was identified, but also not thought to be connected. I couldn’t find any other information about these photos.
Another man investigated early on was Ron Erwin. Erwin was a photographer from Joplin, Missouri who often came to Albuquerque to photograph the state fair. Many of those trips brought him to the city around the same time as some of the disappearances.
Search warrants on two of his houses and his photography studio were carried out in August 2010. Two of his cameras and thousands of photographs were looked at, his truck and van were impounded by police and even his mother was interviewed. However, he was ruled out in 2011 because he wasn’t in Albuquerque on some of the days women went missing.
In a reddit thread on the case started around 2017, a few people commented saying they were from the Joplin area and knew Ron Erwin. They described him as kind of strange, but agreed he wasn’t physically capable of killing people and dumping the bodies out in the desert. Obviously I can’t confirm these statements are true, but I thought they were worth mentioning. The thread also mentions similarities between this case and the murder of a woman named Amber Tuccaro.
Amber Tuccaro was 20 years old when she went missing from Nisku, close to Edmonton in Canada in 2010. Her body was found two years later, shortly after a recording was released. The recording was of Amber’s last phone call, and at least part of the audio was released to the public. in the hopes that someone would recognize the voice of the man she was talking to. The reddit thread on the West Mesa murders mentions similarities between the voice liked to Amber’s murder and another voice claiming to have carried out the West Mesa murders.
I listened to the voice comparison and they do sound similar, though it’s always hard to tell over the phone. You can listen for yourself here.
However, Schultz acknowledged the investigation was difficult. There were sometimes gaps of weeks or months between the last sightings of these women and any missing persons reports. According to Schultz, people involved in criminal activity often “don’t want to be found.”
So let’s talk about some theories in the case. Early theories included: A pimp, someone who was in prison when the bodies were found, gang activity, someone who was deployed overseas at the time the bodies were found and someone who didn’t like prostitutes. There was also speculation that these murders were connected to a a possible serial killer who killed prostitutes in Wisconsin between 1987 and 2007. Police did wonder about this, but I’m not sure if it was actually investigated, or how thoroughly.
There was also speculation that the killer, whoever they were, stopped burying bodies in the mass grave after 2005 because there were subdivisions springing up in the area. If this is true, there could be more bodies buried elsewhere — including those of the women from Ida Lopez’s list who are still missing.
Other theories include the killer being hired by a politician who solicited one of the prostitutes and was later afraid of being exposed. There’s also been talk that the killer is actually a police officer. One report said Cinnamon Elks told her friends that “A dirty cop was chopping off the heads of prostitutes and burying them on the West Mesa.” She disappeared pretty soon after this.
In addition to the theories and speculation, two suspects have been publicly named. The first one is Lorenzo Montoya.
On December 17, 2006, Montoya met 19-year-old escort Shericka Hill in an online chatroom. He invited her over to his house, where he proceeded to (allegedly) kill her and wrap her body in a rug, presumably preparing to dump her body somewhere. But before he could do this, Shericka’s boyfriend came over to check on her and subsequently shot and killed Montoya. Montoya has been a suspect in several other prostitute disappearances. He was charged with raping and choking a prostitute in 1999, but these charges were later dismissed.
Lorenzo Montoya frequented the East Central corridor — he’d been arrested in 1998 when he picked up someone he presumably thought was a prostitute who turned out to be an undercover detective.
In 2016, police investigated a sex tape Montoya was in. They wanted to know who the women were, if they were connected to the West Mesa murders, and if they were okay. I don’t think any of the women have ever been found. As far as I know, Montoya is still being investigated in the West Mesa murders, albeit posthumously.
The second suspect is Joseph Blea. The same month the first body was discovered, Blea’s ex-wife, April Gillen, called police and said she thought he might know something. Blea owned a landscaping business and frequently dumped debris on the West Mesa at night. A tag for a tree was also found at the burial site, which was later traced back to Blea’s business. He was also known to solicit prostitutes around the East Central corridor.
One of Blea’s ex-wives said he “often speaks about his hatred for prostitutes, calling them dirty whores and sluts, sometimes calling them by name.” I’m not sure if this is the same ex that reported him to police.
Blea’s house was searched in June 2009. It was searched again in October of that year, along with his jail cell. I couldn’t find out what he was in jail for, but more on his criminal history in a minute.
Blea’s wife at the time also said she occasionally found jewelry in their house that didn’t belong to her or her daughter, and that her daughter had once found women’s underwear in their shed (I assume the underwear didn’t belong to either of them). Some of the families of the West Mesa murder victims said they noticed pieces of the womens’ jewelry missing as well. Police wouldn’t say if any of the jewelry found in Blea’s home matched any jewelry that the victims were missing.
Blea is suspected in the murder of another prostitute, Jennifer Lynn Shirm in 1985. DNA evidence in the case matched him. I’m not sure exactly where the DNA came from — whether it was actually on her body or somewhere else at the crime scene — and he hasn’t been charged in her murder.
In 2013, Joseph Blea was tied to four rape cases. In June 2015, he was convicted for the rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1988. A few days later, he pled no contest to five more rape charges. Altogether, he ended up sentenced to 90 years in prison. He has exhausted all his appeals, so unless something drastic happens, he will never get out.
In the summer of 2014, detective Ida Lopez retired and the West Mesa murder case was taken over by Det. Mark Manary. However, Lopez returned to the case the following year and, as far as I know, is still working on it.
As early as 2015, there has been talk of building a memorial park on the site of the mass grave. As of February 2019, it was under construction. Also in 2019, two New Mexico senators introduced a bill that encouraged a memorial honoring the victims and for investigators to look at the case again. This bill also mentions nine Jane Does found at the site; this is the first and only mention I’ve seen of any remaining Jane Does, so I’m not sure where that information comes from.
In January 2018, Street Safe New Mexico created a billboard campaign to raise awareness about the case. This non profit was created in direct response to the murders and, according to there website, tries “to reduce the harmful consequences associated with life on the street.”
In July 2018, a construction crew found more bones near the mass grave. These bones were found to be of an ancient Native American, probably from between 1100 and 1300 AD, and not connected to the West Mesa murders. In 2019, Street Safe New Mexico held a memorial for the 10th anniversary of the bodies being found.
Cases of missing and murdered sex workers have a reputation for not being taken seriously, both by police and the general public. However, the West Mesa murders might have changed that in Albuquerque. In a 2013 interview, Ray Schultz said there was a “conscious shift” in the Albuquerque Police Department to take prostitutes more seriously. A prostitute named Christine said the same year that other prostitutes in that area had become more conscious about watching out for each other and not taking more dangerous jobs. She also noted an improved relationship between prostitutes and police, saying police used to laugh at them when they reported a crime, but now they were “cool with us” and more proactive about arresting their accused attackers.
There are still at least six missing women in the Albuquerque area thought to be connected to the West Mesa murders. If the killer (or killers) was (or were) involved in any of their disappearances, there very well could be a second grave site, as was speculated earlier.
Darlene Trujillo was last seen on July 4, 2001, at the age of 20. She dropped her son off at her grandmother’s, who she informed she was going on a two day trip to Arizona. She never returned. Her loved ones don’t believe she would have abandoned her son.
Anna Vigil was last seen on January 21, 2005 at the age of 20. There aren’t many more details about her disappearance, other than a note that she was addicted to heroin at the time. She had a tattoo of a rose with the name ‘Paul’ on her right ankle.
There is a 2014 report of a woman named Anna Vigil being shot and killed in Albuquerque, but this is almost certainly a different person, and the identical name and city are coincidence.
Felipa Gonzales was last seen on April 27, 2005 at the age of 22. She was released from jail shortly before her disappearance. She has a tattoo of Winnie the Pooh on her back and one of her name on her ankle.
Nina Herron was last seen on May 14, 2005 at the age of 21. She was last seen at her house in Albuquerque, but I’m not sure of the details, like what she was doing or if she was planning to go somewhere. She has the initials “NH” tattooed on her left middle finger, three dot tattoos above her left thumb, and an animal character tattooed on her left calf.
Shawntell Waites was last seen on May 15, 2006 at the age of 29. She is missing several teeth and has the word ‘lady’ tattooed on her right leg. She might go by her middle name, Monique.
Another source said her leg tattoo was actually of a woman, not the word ‘lady,’ and that she had another unspecified tattoo on one of her ankles.
Leah Peebles was last seen on May 22, 2006 at the age of 23. She had just dropped off her car for repairs in an area known for drugs and prostitution. She’d moved to the Albuquerque area to start fresh after getting clean from drug addiction, but I’m not sure how long she had been there. She has brown hair but is known to frequently dye it.
If you have any information on the disappearances of any of these women, you can contact the Albuquerque Police Department at 505-843-7867 or the New Mexico Department of Public Safety’s Missing Person Hotline at 1-800-457-3463.
If you have any information about the West Mesa murders, you can contact the West Mesa tiplines at 505-250-7378 or 505-768-2450. You can also contact the 118th Street Task Force at 1-877-765-8273 or Crime Stoppers at (505) 843-STOP.
So that’s all I have for you today on the West Mesa murders and the West Mesa Bone Collector. From what little I’ve seen of the officers involved in this case, it seems like they genuinely care about these victims and want justice for them and answers for their loved ones. Despite its rocky start, I’m pretty confident this case will be solved, even if it takes a few more years.
West Mesa photo: Wxstorm via Wikimedia Commons
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