Cold Case Explorations

Researching Cold and Unsolved Cases from the US and Beyond

The West Mesa Bone Collector, an Uncaught Serial Killer

This case has remained unsolved for 14 years, 10 months, and 6 days.

In 2009, a woman walking her dog stumbled upon a bone in Albuquerque’s West Mesa, an expanse of undeveloped land that lies within city limits. When authorities investigated the scene, they ended up finding 11 bodies of women who’d gone missing in the area.

A map of the site where 11 women were found murdered.
A map of the site where 11 women were found murdered (Albuquerque Journal).

Most of the women who were murdered were involved with drugs and prostitution, which was why they weren’t reported as missing right away. Eventually, the killings became known as the West Mesa murders, and the suspected serial killer as the West Mesa Bone Collector.

Years later, there have still been no arrests in the case. Authorities have some suspects that seem like good candidates for the killings, but they don’t have enough evidence to take a case to court and get a conviction. Was it just one person or did several different people commit these heinous murders? Are there more bodies out there waiting to be found in the New Mexico desert? And who is the West Mesa Bone Collector?

Table of Contents

A Grim Discovery

It was a brisk February evening in 2009 in Albuquerque, NM when a woman was walking her dog, Ruca. Ruca ran off for a bit, allowed to run off-leash, and began digging in the dirt. When the dog-walker approached to see what Ruca was digging for, she discovered something odd in the West Mesa dirt: a human femur bone. She reported the discovery to authorities, and soon it was revealed that there was not only one skeleton buried, but many, many more.

High-Definition Aerial Photographs

Investigators were able to use some high-definition aerial photographs to examine the West Mesa area. They noted a series of disturbances in the dirt, and using the data to GPS-pinpoint the locations, they went and dug up those areas. At each of these locations, a woman’s body was found.

Authorities ended up sifting through 40,000 cubic yards of dirt before ending the dig after 12 weeks. In total, 11 women would be found buried in West Mesa. Believed to all have been murdered by the same man, they became known collectively as the victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector, a serial killer who remains uncaught to this day.

Investigators excavating the West Mesa site and finding what appears to be a human femur.
Investigators excavating the West Mesa site and finding what appears to be a human femur (Albuquerque Journal).

The Investigation Started Years Earlier

It was in mid-2005 that Albuquerque Police Department (APD) detective Ida Lopez noted that women tied to drugs and prostitution started to go missing in Albuquerque. She began investigating then, far earlier than the 2009 discovery of the bones, and she was unfortunately correct in her concerns that something horrible was happening to these disappearing women.

In total, there were at least 17 missing women from the area that Lopez was aware of. Most had gone missing between the years of 2001–2006 and had drug and prostitution charges, making them vulnerable to crime themselves.

Because of the drug addictions and lifestyles of these women, it was hard to track down where their last movements had been, or even when family members had last seen them. Many were only reported missing many months after they had been last seen, making it nearly impossible for authorities to track down their last whereabouts.

The Victims

In a lot of serial killer cases, the focus is primarily on the killer and the victims are often forgotten. I think it’s important to know who these murdered women were, and to remind ourselves that they had families, friends, and loved ones who cared about them.

Many of the women who were murdered were involved with prostitution, gangs, and/or drugs which may have put them into situations they might not have otherwise found themselves in. However, just because they were involved in illicit activities doesn’t mean that they deserved to be murdered.

A makeshift memorial for the victims in Southwest Albuquerque.
A makeshift memorial for the victims in Southwest Albuquerque (Albuquerque Journal).

I put the victims in the order of their disappearance, starting in May 2003 and ending in September 2004. Many of the victims were friends with one another, running in the same circles. It’s thought that there may be additional victims out there as well, with their bodies yet to be discovered.

1. Monica Candelaria

Monica Candelaria (21) disappeared in May 2003 when she was last seen in Southwest Albuquerque. Authorities stated that she lived a “high-risk lifestyle” that involved gangs, prostitution, and drugs, situations that could’ve put her into contact with the West Mesa Bone Collector.

A photograph of Monica Candelaria.
A photograph of Monica Candelaria (Albuquerque Journal).

According to her obituary, Candelaria had a daughter who tragically passed away prior to her own death. She was described as “a loving daughter, mother, granddaughter, niece, cousin and friend who will be truly missed.”

2. Doreen Marquez

Doreen Marquez (27) was last seen dropping off a child at Calvary Christian Academy in October 2003. Later, a friend said that she’d last seen Marquez in Barelas, although authorities weren’t able to confirm that.

A photograph of Doreen Marquez.
A photograph of Doreen Marquez (Albuquerque Journal).

When she was younger, Marquez attended West Mesa Highschool where she was a cheerleader. “She always did her hair, she always did her nails, she always looked beautiful,” said one of her friends. She also had two daughters that she doted on, throwing them fantastic birthday parties.

Unfortunately, as the girls got older, Marquez turned to drugs and ended up being kicked out of her sister’s home, though with the option to return if she wanted to get clean:

“I just told her, ‘You know, it’s better if you just go. Whenever you feel like you’re not going to use, or you just want somewheres [sic] to come and eat, shower, or whatever, my door is open.’ And she never came back.”

Marquez’s Sister (Source: Albuquerque Journal)

Marquez never did come back. Her remains were eventually identified to be among the 11 victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector.

3. Victoria Chavez

It was in early 2004 that Victoria Chavez (26) was last reported as being seen. She had several arrests for drug-related incidents, as well as five prostitution convictions, so her family wasn’t too concerned at first when they couldn’t get into contact with her.

However, after a year had gone by without any contact, Chavez’s mother reported her as missing in March 2005. It wouldn’t be until the victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector were unearthed that her family found out what happened to their loved one.

A small memorial set up for Victoria Chavez.
A small memorial set up for Victoria Chavez (A&E).

As for personal information, I was unable to find much about Chavez, although one source said that she is survived by two children. Chavez’s stepfather said of her murder: “To have [the police] come and knock on my door, I was devastated. I never thought it would end like this. I just had that hope.”

4. Veronica Romero

Veronica Romero (27) was reported missing by her family on Valentine’s Day in 2004. I couldn’t find too much about her life, although her obituary lists that she had five children and a large family of people who cared about her.

A photograph of Veronica Romero.
A photograph of Veronica Romero (Albuquerque Journal).

One of her family members said of her body being found with the other murdered women:

“We’re putting her to rest finally, but considering what’s been done, and now we’re finding out more of what’s happened to her, and it’s sad. She was hurt real bad.”

Romero’s Family (Source: Albuquerque Journal)

5 & 6. Jamie Barela & Evelyn Salazar

Jamie Barela (15) and Evelyn Salazar (23, though some sources say she was either 25 or 27) were cousins and were last seen walking toward a park at San Mateo and Gibson in Albuquerque. Neither woman was ever seen again.

Jamie Barela (left) and Evelyn Salazar (right), the final victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector to be identified.
Jamie Barela (left) and Evelyn Salazar (right), the final victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector to be identified (Albuquerque Journal).

Salazar enjoyed camping and other outdoor activities and was a good cook. She was described as a “loving, fun, and outgoing person” who loved life and loved being a mother. She’d been once convicted on a prostitution charge, in line with many of the other victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector.

Unlike the other victims, Barela had no prostitution or drug arrests. By all accounts, she was a normal teenager who might’ve just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was also one of the youngest victims at only 15 years old.

7. Syllannia Edwards

Like Jamie Barela, Syllannia Edwards was only 15 years old when she went missing in May 2004. She was a reportedly a runaway from Lawton, OK and had been in the custody of Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) since her mother had gone to jail when she was only 5 years old.

A photograph of Syllannia Edwards.
A photograph of Syllannia Edwards (News 9).

Edwards’ troubled life led her to Albuquerque where she worked as a prostitute to make ends meet. Unfortunately, this led to her running into the West Mesa Bone Collector, and she ended up buried with the other ten women in West Mesa. She is survived by her mother, grandmother, and seven other siblings.

8. Virginia Cloven

In June 2004, Virginia Cloven (22) was last heard from by her father. She was never seen or heard from again until her body was unearthed at the West Mesa site with the other victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector.

Cloven grew up in Los Chavez, and was described as funny and someone who loved doing makeup as a child. However, tragedy struck when she was in high school when her brother was shot and killed. Cloven ran away a week later, as did one of her other brothers.

A photograph of Virginia Cloven.
A photograph of Virginia Cloven (The Charley Project).

Eventually, Cloven ended up living in Albuquerque with her grandfather, then later moved in with her boyfriend. He unfortunately was in a tragic accident and she ended up on the streets. She tried to reach back out to her parents after her boyfriend’s accident, but they were never able to see each other again. She vanished sometime around June 2004.

Authorities identified Cloven’s remains and informed her family sometime later. Her father said of his daughter’s death:

“We just couldn’t believe it. We were hoping it was a mistake. In the back of our minds we were still hoping she might be out there… When you lose a kid it’s the hardest thing in the world, I think.”

Cloven’s Father (Source: Albuquerque Journal)

9. Cinnamon Elks

Cinnamon Elks (31) was last seen around July 2004 when she was arrested and booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center. Her mother reported her missing after a birthday passed without contact between the two, something that was very unusual.

A photograph of Cinnamon Elks.
A photograph of Cinnamon Elks (WeRemember).

Like many of the other women who were found in the West Mesa grave, Elks struggled with drugs and had several prostitution charges. Elks’ mother described her daughter as someone who fell prey to drugs, and they took over her entire life. “Drugs stole everything from us,” her mother stated.

Elks ended up having two children, although she reportedly was an absent mother, missing sports games in favor of doing drugs. Her remains were eventually found among the others in West Mesa.

10. Juliean ”Julie” Nieto

Julie Nieto (23) was last seen in August 2004 at her grandfather’s house. She had a young son at the time and her family became worried when she didn’t return to see him, as she loved her son above all else. “She was a great mother. She wouldn’t let that boy go for nothing,” said Nieto’s mother.

Photographs of Julie Nieto as a child and as a teenager.
Photographs of Julie Nieto as a child and as a teenager (KOAT).

Described as small in stature, Nieto often had to sew and alter clothes so that they would fit her properly. She grew up in Albuquerque and loved to jump rope as a child. Her obituary described her as a “beautiful and devoted, daughter, loving mother and a beloved friend.”

Unfortunately, like so many of the other victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector, Nieto got involved in drugs around the age of 19. She tried to get treatment, but she went back to using and her remains were ultimately found in the West Mesa grave with the other women.

11. Michelle Valdez (and unborn fetus)

Michelle Valdez (22) was last seen in September 2004, and was later reported missing in February 2005. She’d gotten into drugs and sometimes disappeared for weeks or months at a time, so at first, they weren’t too concerned when she was missing. However, when she didn’t contact her mother for her birthday, they reported her as a missing person to police.

Valdez’s father said of his daughter, “Michelle was quite a gal, she would give you the shirt off of your back if you needed it. She was good-hearted, kind, and didn’t deserve what she got.” According to friends, she had a big heart and cared deeply about others, and was a great big sister to her younger siblings.

A photograph of Michelle Valdez.
A photograph of Michelle Valdez (Albuquerque Journal).

Additionally, Valdez had two children of her own, a son and a daughter. She reportedly wanted to get clean, but she didn’t have the money or insurance to put herself into a program.

Valdez’s remains were eventually found in West Mesa, along with that of her unborn fetus that was estimated to have been around four months along when she was murdered.

The Investigation

As stated before, APD detective Lopez had been suspicious that something was going on for years. However, she’d never been able to find any concrete evidence of exactly what had happened to the 17 women on her list — at least, not until the West Mesa gravesite was unearthed.

In addition to the APD, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI were also brought in to help solve the case of the West Mesa Murders. The case is also known as the 118th Street Homicides.

Interviews Conducted

Many women working the streets of Albuquerque were interviewed, especially those who had similar backgrounds to those that were found buried in West Mesa. It was thought that they could add more information to the timelines for the women who’d gone missing in the years that the West Mesa Bone Collector was killing women. Additionally, it was possible that these women might’ve run into the killer themselves, but had potentially been spared.

The timelines established by the women helped to eliminate some suspects, according to Detective Mark Manary of the Albuquerque Police. However, getting closer to a prime suspect remains elusive.

The area where the West Mesa murder victims were found.
The area where the West Mesa murder victims were found (Fox News).

No Clothes

The West Mesa Bone Collector buried his victims naked, perhaps to try to make identification of the bodies more difficult in case they were ever discovered, or to try and conceal potential evidence from authorities. The victims’ clothes could’ve potentially contained forensic evidence like blood drops and fibers — evidence that could have pointed police in the direction of the killer.

No Signs of Violence on the Bones

The bodies of the West Mesa murder victims didn’t show any obvious signs of trauma like gunshot wounds or stab marks. However, this doesn’t mean they died peacefully. A death like strangulation or smothering might not be recorded in the bones, although it would have been obvious on the soft tissues of the bodies if the women had been found closer to their times of death, before their flesh had decayed away.

With bodies that have been reduced to skeletal remains, there is only so much information that investigators can glean from them. In the autopsy reports, the medical examiner explained:

“Some acts of violence, such as strangulation or suffocation, may not leave any detectable injuries to skeletal remains and could not be ruled out by this investigation.”

Medical Examiner (The Salt Lake Tribune)

It’s also true that in some instances of strangulation, the hyoid bone (a small U-shaped bone in the neck) ends up broken. However, this is only true in about one-third of strangulation cases. I tried to find information about whether the hyoid bones were intact or not in the cases of the West Mesa Murders, but I was unable to find verifiable sources with that information.

Additional Aerial Searches Conducted

The APD conducted more aerial searches to try to locate any more graves in the Albuquerque area. They spent weeks flying over the city, searching for other areas of dirt that appeared to be disturbed. Former APD chief Ray Schultz said of the aerial searches:

“We basically went and investigated hundreds of other spots. We found all kinds of stuff from animals that had been buried out in the mesa to pieces of debris.”

Fmr. Chief Ray Schultz (Source: Albuquerque Journal)

Ultimately, the APD was unable to find any more graves or potential burial sites for the additional missing six women. It’s thought that they’re still out there somewhere in the New Mexico desert.

Investigators used heavy construction equipment to help unearth remains.
Investigators used heavy construction equipment to help unearth remains (Albuquerque Journal).

Are There More Bodies Out There?

The bodies of the 11 women were found in an undeveloped housing plot. If the planned subdivision had been built in the area, the bodies might’ve never been found. Authorities suspect that the West Mesa Bone Collector has additional burial sites where the other six missing women might be.

According to sources, the APD still has a room dedicated to solving the case of the West Mesa Murders. They also continue to track down any leads about anything suspicious that people report, especially when it comes to disturbed dirt in the nearby desert.

Will This Case Ever Be Solved?

While authorities continue to investigate the West Mesa Murders over a decade later, some doubt that this case will ever be solved. University of New Mexico professor Dirk Gibson is one such skeptic. He’s written two books on serial killers and doesn’t think this case will be solved. Gibson stated:

“There hasn’t been the degree of public fear and alarm that you might expect. There has been very little publicity. There’s a sense of physical remoteness — this place was very removed… There has been little pressure on the police to investigate.”

Dirk Gibson (Source: All That’s Interesting)

Additionally, the fact that the murdered women were prostitutes and drug addicts makes them unsympathetic victims to much of the public. “Albuquerqueans don’t relate to the victims. They think they’re just a bunch of hookers and drug addicts,” said Gibson of the victims.

A billboard requesting information about the West Mesa Murders in Albuquerque, NM.
A billboard requesting information about the West Mesa Murders in Albuquerque, NM (Albuquerque Journal).

Law enforcement has also acknowledged the difficulties in solving older cases. Detective Manary has said:

“The longer a case goes, the harder it is to collect certain evidence that is time sensitive. But at the same time, a witness that may have been too scared to talk at the time of the incident because of their personal situation may be more willing to talk at a later date.”

Det. Mark Manary (Source: Albuquerque Journal)

Whether more witnesses will come forward is yet to be seen. It’ll take more witnesses or more evidence for this case to be solved at this point in time. And hopefully, with the passage of time, people will come forward with what they know.

Potential Suspects

Authorities have had a tough time with the case of the West Mesa Murders because of the number of women who were murdered or missing and the fact that many of them were involved in drugs and prostitution, meaning they interacted with a number of different people on a daily basis.

Rumors also swirled in the area about the killings, and police had to work hard to try to track down all of them. Most led nowhere, but authorities were still able to narrow down their list of potential suspects with two men being at the forefront: Joseph Blea and Lorenzo Montoya.

Joseph Blea (left) and Lorenzo Montoya (right), the two main suspects in the West Mesa Murders.
Joseph Blea (left) and Lorenzo Montoya (right), the two main suspects in the West Mesa Murders (Albuquerque Police Department).

Joseph Blea

Joseph Blea was suspected of being the West Mesa Bone Collector early on in the investigation. His home was searched just a week after the bones were first found. It’s not clear if authorities found anything tying him to the serial killings, but he was later convicted on rape charges in June 2015. Although he was only convicted of raping four victims, he’s also a suspect in a number of other rapes during the late 1980s.

As for evidence pointing to him being the murderer, Blea’s DNA was found on the jeans of a prostitute who was murdered in the late 1980s. Additionally, a tag for a tree was found in one of the makeshift graves for the 11 women murdered. This tag was from an Albuquerque nursery that Blea frequented, since he worked as a landscaper.

Additionally, Blea’s wife also told authorities that she occasionally found jewelry and underwear in the home that didn’t belong to her or her daughter, suggesting that Blea could have been bringing trophies home from other women he killed. It’s believed that his wife was the one who originally suspected him of potentially being the West Mesa Bone Collector.

In prison, Blea’s cellmate reported that Blea had told him he knew some of the victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector, having hired them for sex acts prior to their murders. He reportedly called the victims “trashy” and spoke poorly of them.

Lorenzo Montoya

Lorenzo Montoya was another suspect for the serial killings. He lived in the South Valley at the time of the killings, only a short distance away from West Mesa. His trailer home was roughly 3 miles from where the bodies were found.

When some sex workers were interviewed regarding Montoya, many spoke of his violent tendencies and that he’d made threats to kill them and “bury them in lime.” It’s not clear if these threats were reported to authorities at the time.

A pimp killed Montoya in 2006 when he tried to strangle a prostitute. This was before the victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector were found, which meant authorities never got a chance to interview him regarding the serial murders.

Before he died, authorities believe that Montoya lured a woman back to his trailer, tied her up, and strangled her. A warrant regarding the incident reported, “She was bound by the ankles, knees and wrists, with duct tape and cord.” The woman’s body was found next to Montoya’s SUV, partially concealed in blanket.

A police photo showing Montoya’s trailer (left) and the red vehicle where a woman’s body was found.
A police photo showing Montoya’s trailer (left) and the red vehicle where a woman’s body was found (Albuquerque Journal).

No Single Killer?

Some have suggested that the killings are due not to one serial killer but rather to several killers who were operating in the Albuquerque area at that time. After all, prostitutes are often targeted by serial killers for their lack of social connections and the fact that they often aren’t reported as missing for a long time.

Criminology professor Joseph Diaz from Fayetteville State University stated of serial killers targeting prostitutes:

“Some men believe they are cleaning up the streets and making them safe by killing prostitutes, but the typical serial killer tends to target prostitutes because they are simply easy to get and plentiful.”

Joseph Diaz (Source: Reuters)

Because prostitutes are often targeted, it’s possible that there were several killers targeting them at the time of the West Mesa Murders.

What Do I Think Happened?

A serial killing cold case that hasn’t been solved is a tough conundrum, especially with so many victims. There are at least 11 families that need justice and until authorities get some new information or evidence, justice will have to wait.

One Killer Likely

The fact that 11 bodies were all found in the same general area leads me to believe that this was indeed one killer and not several killers as some have posited. What would the chances be of several different killers all burying their victims in the same place — and not unwittingly disturbing other graves? I think it’s much more plausible that just one person was burying the bodies in that spot in West Mesa.

Blea & Montoya are Good Suspects

The fact that the killings have apparently stopped since Montoya died and Blea was imprisoned suggest that one of them was probably the perpetrator. That, or the actual West Mesa Bone Collector wised up to the police on his trail and moved elsewhere to continue his killings.

The problem is that there simply isn’t enough evidence to pin the murders on either suspect at this point in time. If it was Montoya, then the families will never see justice served because he was killed in 2006. If it is Blea, then he’s already behind bars and not likely to be released anytime soon, and unless he confesses, there’s little chance being able to pin the murders on him.

Ultimately, this case needs new, breakthrough evidence to be able to be solved — be it a witness or some new testing on the current evidence in law enforcement’s custody.

The case is a tough one because there aren’t any real answers to give the families, even after over a decade of investigating. Perhaps Dan Valdez, father of murder victim Michelle Valdez, has said it best:

“God, I wish we had some answers. We all meet our maker in the end anyway. We’ll get our justice, maybe not here on earth. But we’ll get our justice.”

Michelle Valdez (Source: Albuquerque Journal)

Case Updates

There haven’t been as many case updates as one might suspect in a serial killing case, but there is still some new developments here and there.

September 2017: Plans for Memorial Park Unveiled

The city of Albuquerque, NM unveiled plans for a memorial park to be built to honor the victims found in West Mesa.

The park plans for the memorial park to be built.
The park plans for the memorial park to be built (Business Journals).

June 2020: Memorial Park Opened

The Women’s Memorial Park was completed and opened in June 2020.

February 2022: New Plea for Information

In February 2022, the APD made a plea to the public for more information that could help them solve the West Mesa Murders. Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said, “The only way this case is going to get solved is with our community’s help or even communities around us that might know something.”

Do You Have Information?

There is currently a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible. If you have information, please contact the Albuquerque Police Department at (505) 242–2677 or the 118th Street Task Force at (877) 765–8273.

A poster for the identified murdered women in the West Mesa Murders case.
A poster for the identified murdered women in the West Mesa Murders case (Albuquerque Police Department).

Cold Case Questions

  • Do you think the West Mesa Bone Collector is one person or many different people?
  • Do you think the identity of this killer (or killers) will ever be discovered?
  • Is the West Mesa Bone Collector still out there somewhere?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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