ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – There’s a dusty patch of desert mesa off 118th Street, just north of Dennis Chavez Boulevard, that still bears the deep scar of the most horrific crime in this city’s history.
Running from west to east, the work of the bulldozers and backhoes is still plain to see. At the bottom of the gouge: 11 shallow graves.
Over the course of nearly a year, from February 2009 through January 2010, Albuquerque learned the women’s names — and that police believed they’d died at the hands of a serial killer whose identity remains shrouded in mystery.
Some investigators believe they know who did it, although police refuse to say publicly. KRQE News 13 has learned the names of two prominent suspects in the West Mesa Murders case and is reporting for the first time details about both men — and some of the tactics detectives have used through the years to solve the riddle — as the investigation limps to the end of its fifth year.
One of the men is dead; the other is in jail facing a slew of violent, unrelated rape charges.
The Albuquerque Police Department concedes that tips in the case have somewhat dried up through the years.
But Cmdr. Anthony Montano, who oversees APD’s violent crimes division and is among the new sets of eyes brought in recently to take a fresh look at the West Mesa case, insists that it’s still a “very active investigation.”
Montano is hopeful.
“I’m confident we’re going to solve this,” he said in an interview with KRQE.
Montano answered “no” when asked whether he had a gut feeling about who the killer was. He won’t say whether APD believes it’s any closer to solving the case than it was at the height of the investigation in mid-to-late 2009. At that point, detectives had narrowed the suspect list to five or fewer.
The commander won’t discuss suspects, other than to say the department now has more than a dozen on its list. He said he isn’t familiar with many aspects of the investigation that predate his time on the task force assigned to get to the bottom of the women’s deaths.
KRQE’s findings are based on information provided by sources familiar with the investigation over the course of nearly five years, interviews with family members and others connected to the case, police documents and court records.
Some of the victims’ family members who spoke with KRQE this month share Montano’s optimism about solving the case. Most don’t. All of them say police haven’t done enough in recent years to push the investigation over the finish line.
And some haven’t been to the site in years.
Today, there are no more flowers leaning against the cinder block wall that surrounds the most infamous 92 acres in the city, which have been described as the largest crime scene in American history. There are no more signs reading “We miss you, Michelle,” or “Veronica, we will never forget.” There are no more cherished pictures of the victims in better times, before the horrors of drug addiction drove them to desperate lives of prostitution on East Central Avenue — and into the arms of their killer.
The burial sites have been abandoned.
Some wonder whether the case has, too.
“It’s been really kind of, kind of disappointing that it hasn’t been kept up more,” Dan Valdez, whose pregnant daughter, Michelle Valdez, was among the victims, said of the investigation.
A little piece of plastic
Joseph Raymond Blea caught the attention of detectives investigating the West Mesa murders not long after another team from APD began meticulously unearthing remains at 118th and Dennis Chavez SW in February 2009. Just 11 days after the digging began, police arrested Blea on charges that he violently kidnapped his girlfriend, beat her and threatened to rape her.
He has been in jail ever since, awaiting trial on several pending cases, all of which involve violence against women. In October, Blea was moved to the Santa Fe County Detention Center as part of Bernalillo County’s effort to reduce jail crowding here.
After Blea was locked up, a profile began to develop of a man who had a history of violent sexual fantasies dating back to his early teen years, KRQE has learned. Court records in several cases allege that he has acted on those fantasies many times. Evidence from other cases point to the same thing.
Blea’s DNA, taken after his arrest, matched DNA discovered on the pants of a young prostitute whose body had been dumped off East Central in the 1980s, KRQE has learned.
Statute of limitations issues prevented a charge in that case, but detectives got a different kind of break from their counterparts at the dig site.
The West Mesa victims were reported missing between late 2003 and mid-2005, and their bodies were buried naked. They had been strangled. Aside from bones, next to nothing remained in the makeshift graves by the time police uncovered them. That meant a decided lack of physical evidence to use in the investigation.
The killer had been careful.
A little piece of plastic may have been the only mistake.
The excavation team found an identification tag from a tree that was purchased at an Albuquerque nursery in one of the graves. It took months of cross-referencing to put it all together, but detectives were able to trace the tag back to a nursery where Blea, who had worked as a gardener and landscaper, was a frequent customer, KRQE has learned.
It was among the things that vaulted Blea to the forefront of the suspect list, where, some investigators say, he remains today.
Montano refused to comment on Blea, now 56. He said there is no primary suspect.
“We have some good suspects,” he said. “We don’t want to narrow it down to just one person and give one person particular attention because that will take the attention from maybe a couple other viable suspects.”
Blea’s name has never been publicly reported as a suspect in the West Mesa case.
Through his attorney, Blea denied involvement in the killings.
Court documents point to West Mesa investigators having a keen interest in Blea over the course of several years. Lists of APD personnel associated with several pending cases against Blea include detectives who have dedicated countless hours to the West Mesa investigation.
A criminal complaint filed against Blea in 2010 case alleging he raped and mentally tortured a young relative says that “as part of a separate investigation, Mr. Joseph Raymond Blea’s family members and associates were interviewed.”
KRQE has learned that Blea talked to law enforcement at least twice about the West Mesa killings. It’s unclear what he told police. His lawyer declined to comment.
On March 15, 2013, a Bernalillo County grand jury returned an indictment against Blea, charging him with nine counts of first-degree criminal sexual penetration and four counts of kidnapping with great bodily harm. At the time, Blea already had been incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center since his arrest in 2009. All of the charges are pending and, if Blea is convicted, he could be sentenced to 234 years in prison.
A week later, on March 22, then-Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz held a news conference in the APD conference room. Behind Schultz was a poster board with a map; the words “McKinley Middle School Rapist;” images of a grey sweatshirt, a serrated knife and a black ski mask; and Joseph Raymond Blea’s jail booking photo.
Schultz told reporters his detectives had linked Blea to the rapes of a handful of McKinley Middle School students and other young women in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
He did not mention the West Mesa case.
‘A much longer road’
Veronica Romero. Monica Candelaria. Michelle Valdez. Cinnamon Elks. Virginia Cloven. Julie Nieto. Jamie Barela. Syllannia Edwards. Victoria Chavez. Doreen Marquez. Evelyn Salazar.
For their families, the West Mesa case goes back much farther than Feb. 2, 2009 — the day Christine Ross’ dog, Ruca, found what turned out to be the human femur bone that launched the biggest criminal investigation Albuquerque had ever seen.
“I know it’s the five-year anniversary, but this has been a much longer road for us,” said Diana Wilhelm, who is quick to point out how beautiful her daughter, Cinnamon, was before Cinnamon sank into the abyss of addiction.
The road had been difficult: Wilhelm’s daughter often dropped off the family radar for long periods of time. She always resurfaced, though, usually with a renewed commitment to get clean and turn things around.
August 2004 was the last time her family saw her alive. She was 31 at the time.
When Cinnamon didn’t turn up for a birthday in December of that year, Wilhelm knew something was wrong.
On Dec. 15, 2004, a missing persons report was filed. Not long after, Wilhelm received an ominous telephone call from a young woman named Virginia Cloven.
“She said Cinammon and Michelle had been murdered,” Wilhelm said.
Turns out, Virginia Cloven had herself been reported missing two months before she made that call. Turns out, Virginia Cloven’s remains were discovered later, in February 2009, in a shallow grave near 118th and Dennis Chavez SW — not far from the remains of Cinnamon Elks and Michelle Valdez.
Wilhelm said she notified police at the time. Other West Mesa victims’ family members say they made similar calls to police around that time. And missing persons reports were filed for all of the West Mesa victims.
“I don’t feel enough was done at the beginning,” Dan Valdez, Michelle’s father, told KRQE.
Wilhelm added: “If my daughter had been blonde-haired and blue-eyed, well …”
At least one person at APD started to recognize a pattern in the mid-2000s. Detective Ida Lopez of the department’s missing persons unit took on the case. She made posters with photographs of missing women, many of them prostitutes, many of them later discovered at the burial site on the far West Side. Lopez walked around East Central with her posters. She carried them with her at the State Fair for several years, too.
Wilhelm and Dan Valdez say APD didn’t give Lopez the extra resources she needed to make much headway on the case. Lopez also got sick, which prevented her from working on the case full-time.
APD has maintained that missing persons cases are difficult to solve, particularly when families don’t report loved ones missing right away. Some of the West Mesa victims weren’t reported missing for months, police reports show. Others were reported within weeks or days of their disappearances.
Lopez has remained integral to the investigation, even after police unearthed the bones. She has been the focus of several news reports about the West Mesa murders, including agreeing to lengthy interviews for segments by NBC Dateline and America’s Most Wanted. KRQE requested an interview with her for this story, but an APD spokeswoman said Lopez wasn’t interested.
The case brought national attention to Albuquerque. And here in the city, it dominated the headlines and led newscasts for months as the body count rose. There were news conferences several times a week, and APD led the press through the excavation site to give reporters a sense of the size of the task at hand. In all, authorities moved more than 40,000 cubic feet of dirt to get at the grave sites and make sure they hadn’t missed any more.
Police drove home the common thread among the victims: nearly all had criminal records that included prostitution.
Details about the search for the killer, however, were harder to come by. And not just for the news media.
Victims’ families say they were never given much specific information about where investigators were headed.
Commander Montano said that’s for a reason: “Releasing all the information we have to the families would compromise the integrity of the investigation.”
APD did, however, have regular meetings with family members back in 2009 to assure them that the case was a priority for the department. That much was evident, too, from the all-star team assembled to help solve it. Some of the department’s best detectives and supervisors were assigned, and they had help from other agencies, including serial killer profilers from the FBI.
The families themselves formed strong bonds, too. They met regularly. They visited the site in groups large and small.
In the years since, all of that has changed.
Montano said APD has received more than 1,000 tips on the case since February 2009. More recently assigned detectives and supervisors are in the process, he said, of going back through each one of them to see whether anything was missed.
But only 70 of those tips came in 2013, he said.
Montano insisted that the investigation hasn’t stopped. He says APD doesn’t even consider it a cold case.
Dan Valdez said that’s not what he was told.
A detective assigned to the case told him a few years ago, he said, that the case was colder than cold.
“He just told me that the case was closed,” Valdez says.
Wilhelm said that’s more than she has heard. APD hadn’t contacted her since 2009 — until the day she was on her way to interview with KRQE earlier this month. That’s when Wilhelm received a call from Detective Lopez.
“It seems a little coincidental that I’m going to be going for an interview today,” Wilhelm told KRQE. “I said: ‘Is that why you’re calling?’ She said: ‘Absolutely not.'”
Valdez said he has spoken to Lopez and others at APD within the past year, but they haven’t provided any updates on the investigation.
Some of the victims’ families feel like they have been abandoned.
Montano said that criticism is unwarranted. If family members have questions about the case, he said, they should contact police and ask them.
“The phone lines have never changed,” Montano said. “Our numbers have remained the same since we’ve started the task force.”
Many of the family members have had the same phone numbers for years, too. KRQE contacted several families at telephone numbers that were written down in five-year-old reporter’s notebooks.
Family members aren’t the only ones who are frustrated that the case hasn’t been solved. City Councilor Ken Sanchez represented the district that includes the burial site off 118th Street back in 2009. (Recent redistricting has removed the site from the area Sanchez serves.)
“We still have no answers,” Sanchez said, walking alongside the site earlier this month with a KRQE reporter. “This was one of the most horrific crimes in the history of our city, and there’s been no resolution to what has happened here.”
Sanchez said he has had trouble getting details from police, too.
“They let me know the investigation is still ongoing,” he said. “That’s the answers I’m getting, and I feel that’s not enough … We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this investigation and we still have no answers.”
The odds of solving the case, Sanchez said, decrease with every day that passes without a resolution.
‘Too brutal of a crime to be the first one’
Lorenzo Matthew Montoya is, in many ways, a logical suspect.
He lived a mile and a half from the burial ground on Albuquerque’s far West Side. He made comments to coworkers that he had killed women and buried them on the West Mesa, which he described as a “big place.” Montoya also had a history of violence against prostitutes.
Unlike with Blea, police never got the chance to question Montoya about the West Mesa case. That’s because he’s dead — the victim of a gunshot wound to the leg during a 2006 incident that, police said at the time, pointed to propensity for serial-killer-like behavior.
Montoya’s history goes back farther than that, though. He was a known East Central cruiser. Three times, police arrested him for patronizing prostitutes.
One of those incidents, as detailed in a criminal complaint obtained by KRQE, was especially chilling given Montoya’s constant presence on the West Mesa suspect list.
On Nov. 3, 1999, APD vice unit detectives saw a known prostitute get into Montoya’s blue Ford pickup truck on Central Avenue. The detectives followed the truck to Transport Road. The truck stopped where Transport passes under Sunport Boulevard. Two people were moving inside the vehicle.
Detectives approached the truck and found Montoya and the woman naked from the waist down. The woman told detectives Montoya had raped her. Later, she provided details: Montoya told the woman he would hurt her if she didn’t perform oral sex on him, which he forced her to do. Then he climbed on top of her and began to choke her.
Montoya “appeared as if he was enjoying choking” the woman, she told detectives. As he held her down, Montoya pulled out a condom and began to remove the woman’s underwear.
That’s when police arrived.
Detectives charged Montoya with criminal sexual penetration, attempted criminal sexual penetration and kidnapping. The case later fell apart when the woman wouldn’t cooperate with prosecutors, according to court records.
Seven years later, another prostitute named Shericka Hill didn’t survive an encounter with Montoya.
In December 2006, Hill’s boyfriend/pimp drove her to Montoya’s trailer and waited outside while she went in. After about an hour, the man went to check on the 19-year-old and encountered Montoya dragging her body toward one of his vehicles. Montyoa had strangled Hill with an intricately braided Duct tape rope.
The man confronted Montoya and fired at least one shot at him. Montoya was hit in the leg, and he bled to death.
In the days after the incident, top law enforcement officials said they feared Montoya had killed before.
“There is a good probability that this isn’t the first time he has done a crime like this,” then-APD Chief Ray Schultz told the Albuquerque Journal at the time. “This is too brutal of a crime to be his first one.”
Detectives said at the time they were investigating possible connections between Montoya and several prostitutes who had gone missing since 2001.
It’s unclear whether those inquiries bore any fruit, but more than two years passed between Montoya’s death and the discovery of the West Mesa victims’ remains.
Police have said since 2009 that there may be more victims out there, in a second burial site. Many of the West Mesa victims names’ were on Lopez’s list of missing women as far back as 2005. So were the names of several other women, most of whom have never been seen alive since.
When discussing the case publicly through the years, Schultz regularly made it a point to say citizens didn’t need to worry that a serial killer was on the loose. The suspects, he said when he was chief, were either dead or in jail.
KRQE asked Montano whether he could provide the public the same assurances.
He responded in an email: ” … I cannot speak for any of our past administration(s.) I am not aware of what his knowledge was about the case when he made the statement … we have several suspects we are actively investigating. As the investigation grew, our suspect pool also increased.”
To catch a killer
Police took a treasure trove of potential evidence from Montoya’s trailer after he was killed, according to search warrant returns obtained by KRQE. The items included Duct tape, hairs, carpet, video tapes, a video camera, blood samples, bullets and cash.
It’s unclear whether any of those items ever connected Montoya to the West Mesa case. But aside from information from tipsters, the trailer’s inventory provided the only shot detectives ever had to establish a solid link between Montoya and the killings.
Not so with other suspects.
KRQE has learned that in 2009, APD used some unorthodox methods to try and draw potential West Mesa suspects out. One of those came by way of a suggestion from FBI profilers who were assisting in the investigation.
The feds told APD to try something different during the frequent news conferences department officials were holding at the time: pull then-Chief Schultz from behind the APD podium, and make Nadine Hamby, who was the department spokeswoman, the public face of the investigation.
Hispanic and slight of build, Hamby shared some physical characteristics with many of the victims. Officials would make sure Hamby’s neckline was exposed, and she used specific phrases and body language while talking about the case on camera. The idea was to press the buttons of any suspects, including Joseph Blea, who may have been watching news reports on TV.
KRQE asked Montano whether the tactic had been successful. He said he doesn’t know anything about it.
APD chased countless leads in the early stages of the investigation. One that appeared promising led them to the home of a man who had a makeshift shrine with pictures of the victims. The man turned out to be someone with a morbid interest in the case, but not a serious suspect.
Information from self-proclaimed psychics poured in early on. And no surprise: APD has been offering a $100,000 reward in the case for years. None of it led to anything substantial.
Detectives also tracked down a man who was in possession of several articles of clothing that had belonged to some of the victims. He was just a friend of theirs, not their killer.
The search led out of state, to Texas, Colorado and, promisingly at first, to Joplin, Mo.
In August 2010, APD officers and FBI agents executed search warrants on the homes and business of Ron Erwin, a photographer who lives in Joplin, in connection with the West Mesa case. APD brought a U-Haul full of photographs, business and financial records and forensic evidence back to Albuquerque from Missouri from Erwin’s properties.
A year later, APD announced detectives had determined Erwin had been in Albuquerque frequently in the mid-2000s — particularly around the time of the State Fair, which he had enjoyed photographing — but he hadn’t been here when three of the West Mesa victims went missing. Erwin was crossed off the suspect list.
He told the Joplin Globe at the time that the ordeal of being investigated as a possible serial killer had been personally devastating for him.
Names fell on and off the list. Blea’s and Montoya’s have stayed on it.
‘You literally have a broken heart’
For the first couple of years, Dan Valdez still put presents under the Christmas tree for Michelle. He doesn’t do that anymore.
“I honor her in my own way,” he said.
Diana Wilhelm still loves her daughter, but she doesn’t dwell on the past.
“They took my daughter,” she said. “I’m not giving them the rest of us.”
Valdez said he does still hope that one of the promises made back in 2009 is kept. KB Homes owns the property where the grave sites were found. The company has never developed the land.
Five years ago, KB officials promised to donate three acres for a memorial park that would honor the victims — and, city officials hoped, serve as a reminder of the dark depths of addiction.
The plan was for the city to design the park; the company would take care of the rest.
“Here we are five years later and nothing has happened,” Councilor Sanchez said. “I consider this sacred ground.”
Reached by telephone, a spokesman for KB Homes said the company’s commitment still stands. The spokesman said KB plans to break ground on the park — and on homes throughout the rest of the 92 acre parcel — this year.
It’s been a decade for most of the families since their loved ones went missing. They spent five of those years not knowing. Since 2009, it’s been more about trying to heal.
Police still have a tall order ahead of them: looking at a thousand tips and more than a dozen suspects. One of them is dead. Another is behind bars.
The 92 acres at 118th and Dennis Chavez — once the focus of a city, a group of grieving families and, for a time, even a nation — still has a secret to tell.
For now, though, all that’s out there is dirt, dust and that wide, deep scar in the ground.
Victims’ families say there’s no way to heal that.
“It never goes away,” Wilhelm said. “It’s like they say you have a broken heart: you literally have a broken heart.”
Dan Valdez added: “It’s like a wound, it will heal but … A wound will scab up, but it will never disappear.”