By Laura Paskus
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Months later, the killings are unsolved. But the families of 11 slain New Mexican women now have a burial site to decorate and visit.
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)--It's windy and dusty. And very quiet. But this spot atop the West Mesa lends a bird's eye view of the valley below.
A green ribbon--the trees along the Rio Grande--runs past downtown. The Sandia and Manzano mountains rise to the east.
This is the view over the soul of a desert city and the river that sustains it. And here, along a wall enclosing an empty lot, stands a memorial of plastic flowers, stuffed animals, framed photos and crosses.
Until recently, a dark secret lay just beneath the surface where desert scrub--running east from the horizon beneath a blue expanse of southwestern sky--meets suburbia.
In early February, a woman walking through a graded patch of desert awaiting development made a discovery: Her dog found a human femur bone. After combing the almost 100-acre area on the outskirts of New Mexico's largest city for more than a month, investigators found the remains of 11 women, one of whom was four months pregnant.
As of late-September, seven of the 11 women have been identified.
The names of the dead include Gina Michelle Valdez, Victoria Chavez, Cinnamon Elks, Julie Nieto, Veronica Romero, Monica Candelaria and Doreen Marquez.
All had been reported missing between 2003 and early 2005. Each had been murdered.
According to Officer Nadine Hamby, public information officer for the Albuquerque Police Department, the bodies were buried in shallow graves.
But workers preparing a development by KB Home had excavated the dirt--grading it and preparing the area to build homes--and disturbed the burials. In some cases, heavy equipment had splintered the bones and jumbled the bodies together.
After carefully sifting through the soil at the unfinished development, Hamby says investigators are confident they have found all the remains.
"Could there be other bodies buried? We have other women that are missing," she said, referring to a running list the department has compiled of 24 women missing from Albuquerque, which included the murder victims. "Could they be buried somewhere out on the West Mesa? Well, I mean, you are talking about a lot of terrain to go through. I guess it could be possible."
Working with friends and family members of the victims and two local lawmakers, KB Home has agreed to donate a portion of the site to create a memorial to the victims.
The number of suspects has varied throughout the course of the investigation, ranging from between five and 15, depending on tips. "Some of the offenders are incarcerated, some of them are deceased and some of them are alive," said Hamby. "As the tips come in we investigate them of course, and then we rule them out."
But some of the victims' survivors complain that it took the discovery of the bones to spur a serious investigation of the women's disappearances.
Hamby disputes that. Some families did not report the women missing immediately, she says, and oftentimes during the investigations one friend would report a woman missing, while another would say, "No, I saw her last week."
"The bottom line," said Hamby, "is these women led transient lifestyles and it was hard for anyone to keep track of them."
Families have also been at odds with police about how the women have been portrayed.
"The police portrayed these girls as prostitutes, but they were not," said Lori Gallegos, the best friend of victim Doreen Marquez. "Yes, they had drug problems and as they would run out of money they would do what they had to do. That's what people don't understand: These were regular girls in jeans and tennies."
Gallegos mourns her friend, who at age 27 went missing in October 2003, and wishes she could have done more while she was alive. Today she is committed to pushing the police investigation forward and to helping families of the victims. Gallegos has contacted local lawmakers, organized events and advocated for a permanent memorial at the burial site. She also helped organize a back-to-school fundraiser for the children of the victims--each of the women left behind at least one child.
"The public will forget about this story--there will be others that replace it--but these kids will always remember this," she said. "The problem here is that somebody killed them--and people are acting like the crime committed is what these girls did."
Dan Valdez, father of Gina Michelle Valdez, the pregnant 22-year-old woman whose bones were found at the West Mesa site, says the portrayal of the women as prostitutes hurt. "It cut a deep wound," he said.
After his daughter's body was found, he scoured her police records. She was a drug abuser, but had never been arrested for prostitution, he says. (Some of the women did have prostitution offenses on their police records.)
"Yes, Michelle got hooked up with the wrong people, she got hooked on the drugs," said Valdez. "But as far as Michelle being a person, I am very proud that I am able to say that she was my daughter."
Since the West Mesa site was exhumed and the bodies found, Valdez has tried reaching out to those in Albuquerque's state-run juvenile detention center, where he worked for 25 years as a maintenance supervisor, and to incarcerated adult women.
"I want to let them know how I feel as a result of Michelle being murdered, I want to talk to them about the lifestyle that (women living on the street) lead and if these girls follow that lifestyle they could be another statistic of murder, or serial killer murder," he said. "I want to let them know they're putting their lives in jeopardy, as well as creating pain for the families."
Looking at the records of 2,000 prostitutes living in Colorado Springs from 1967 to 1999, researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health studied the deaths of 117 of the women. In a 2004 study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, they found the average age at death was 34; 19 percent were murdered, 18 percent died from drug use, 12 percent were killed in accidents and 9 percent died of alcohol-related causes.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Crime Statistics, most murders in the United States, 65 percent, involve male offenders and male victims; 23 percent involve male offenders and female victims; 9.6 percent female offenders and male victims; and less than 3 percent female offenders and female victims. Men are also almost 10 times more likely to commit murder.
Three hundred miles down the road from Albuquerque--straight south, down Interstate-25--more than 400 women have been murdered in the past decade in the Mexican border city of Juarez. Many more are believed to have been abducted while traveling between their home and their jobs at the maquiladoras, or factory assembly shops.
Valdez, working alongside other friends and family members of the murdered women, plans to approach the New Mexico State Legislature for help this coming session.
"My main goal is to change the laws of how adults are treated, how their missing (person's) reports are handled--starting with this state," he said.
The first step is for law enforcement officials to always collect dental records or DNA samples when families file a missing person's report. They should also collect dental records or DNA from incarcerated individuals.
"They have on file information like, he has a heart tattoo on his right arm, or she has 'mom' written on her ankle, but those dissipate with time," he said. "If you're buried out on the West Mesa, like these girls were, nobody knows your tattoo or if you had a scar. DNA and dental records are there forever."
Another change would be to implement alerts for missing and exploited adults, similar to the Amber Alerts issued when children disappear. "I'm going to the legislature in 2010--and I'm going to be there every year until those changes are made in the laws."
Laura Paskus is a freelance journalist.
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