The West Mesa Murders
In 2008, the housing bubble popped and ruined everyone’s hopes and dreams of owning a home. For developers building houses on the West Side of Albuquerque, it meant all building of new homes had stopped also. That included a stretch of a desolate mesa that had just broke ground. But with no money, that meant no housing being built so the land sat vacant and empty. Residents complained of flooding from this stretch of mesa due to the unfinished section being a natural arroyo. A developer agreed to build a retainer wall to channel water into a pond area away from nearby homes.
This uncovered the first bones of a long mystery.
On a February morning in 2009, a woman by the name of Christine Ross was walking around the west side mesa with her dog. The section of mesa she was wandering around in was under construction for a housing project development. The dog found what appeared to be a bone sticking out of the ground. Finding this unusual, Ross took a cell phone picture of it and sent it to her sister who happened to be a registered nurse. Her sister replied that the bone resembled a human femur. Ross then notified law enforcement and thus began the unraveling of one of Albuquerque’s greater mysteries.
Detectives and an army of forensics experts arrived on the scene and eventually recovered eleven remains and an unborn child from makeshift graves. The longest part of the process was trying to identify all eleven remains by the Office of Medical Investigators. Using sketches and dental records, the OMI spent months IDing all eleven remains. OMI investigators concluded they were all murdered by the same suspect. Investigators dubbed this serial killer the 118th Street Serial Killer or The West Mesa Bone Collector.
1. Jamie Barela
Synopsis: Using DNA evidence, forensic experts were able to identify 15-year-old Jamie Barela as one of the victims of the 118th Street serial killer. She was last seen at a family gathering in April of 2004. Jamie and her cousin; Evelyn Salazar, who is also a victim, had left the gathering and went to a park near San Mateo and Gibson SE. They were never seen again. Barela was killed by an unknown person who then buried her in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
2. Monica Candelaria
Synopsis: Sometime between 2003 and 2005 an unknown person killed 22-year-old Monica Candelaria and buried her in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
3. Victoria Chavez
Synopsis: In 2005 an unknown person killed 26-year-old Victoria Chavez and buried her in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
4. Virginia Cloven
Synopsis: Using DNA evidence, forensic investigators were able to identify 24-year-old Virginia Cloven as one of the victims of the 118th Street serial killer. She was reported missing in 2004. Investigators believe that she was killed sometime between 2004 and 2005 by an unknown person who then buried her in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
5. Syllannia Edwards
Synopsis: Using a sketch and dental records, the Office of the Medical Investigator has identified one of the unknown victims of the 118th Street Serial Killer as Syllannia Edwards. Law enforcement authorities in Lawton, Oklahoma had classified her as an endangered runaway and reported her missing in 2003. In May of 2004, Edwards had been seen associating with prostitutes on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora Colorado. She may have been staying at the Ranger Motel. Edwards was seen in the company of three other women: Lucretia, Ty, and Diamond. She might have been using the nicknames “Mimi” or “Chocolate.” Edwards was 15 years old when last seen. Sylvania Edwards was killed sometime between 2004 and 2005 and then buried in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
6. Cinnamon Elks
Synopsis: Sometime between 2004 and 2005 an unknown person killed 32-year-old Cinnamon Elks and buried her in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
7. Doreen Marquez
Synopsis: Sometime between 2003 and 2005 an unknown person killed 24-year-old Doreen Marquez and buried her in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
8. Julie Nieto
Synopsis: Sometime between 2004 and 2005 an unknown person killed 24-year-old Julie Nieto and buried her in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
9. Veronica Romero
Synopsis: Sometime between 2004 and 2005 an unknown person killed 28-year-old Veronica Romero and buried her in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
10. Evelyn Salazar
Synopsis: Using DNA evidence, forensic investigators were able to identify 27-year-old Evelyn Salazar as one of the victims of the 118th Street serial killer. She was last seen at a family gathering in April of 2004. Evelyn and her cousin; Jamie Barela, who is also a victim, had left the gathering and went to a park near San Mateo and Gibson SE. They were never seen again. Salazar was killed by an unknown person who then buried her in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
11. Michelle Valdez
Synopsis: Sometime between 2004 and 2005 an unknown person killed 22-year-old Michelle Valdez and buried her in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Michelle was pregnant at the time of her death. The skeletal remains of her unborn child were found buried with her.
It is also interesting to note, that besides the eleven victims recovered from the West Mesa, there are still another eight women missing from the time frames of 2001 through 2005.
To date, none of the women listed in the APD photo on the left have been seen or heard from since the time of their disappearance. It is assumed they may be additional victims of the West Mesa killer.
This would also possibly mean there is another burial site somewhere around the outskirts of Albuquerque.
Currently, the case is still open as a cold case and there is a reward of $100,000 grand to anyone with info that leads to an arrest.
This case has an ever-growing list of possible suspects. Many have been crossed off this list by law enforcement for one thing or another, but there are a few that remain on detectives’ radar. Below I’ll talk about several possible main suspects as there are too many lesser knowns and most of those have died or are already incarcerated in another state for unrelated crimes. The ones we’ll look into are the most viable persons of interest and I often find myself asking if the suspects knew each other in some form or another as they lived within close proximity of each other and the burial site.
One viable suspect that remains a constant in the West Mesa murders is a man well-known to Albuquerque Police since the nineteen eighties. Joseph Blea was a regular patron of East Central, known to cruise the Central Avenue corridor stalking and harassing not only prostitutes but middle-school-aged girls around McKinley Middle School.
Between August 1984 and March 1988, a string of unsolved murders of prostitutes made headlines for a short time but there was one victim connected to Blea from this timeframe. Jennifer Lynn Shirm’s body was found under a bush on the side of a road just off of Central on May 29, 1985. Even though a suspect in her murder was found, charges against the suspect were later dropped because DNA from Blea was recovered from the scene. Blea denies having a hand in her murder or any of the seven homicides from this timeframe.
Between the years 1990 through 2009, Blea had been on APDs radar more than a hundred times for various infractions ranging from exposing himself to women to aggravated battery, and sexual penetration of a minor. In one case, he broke into a home of a young girl and waited for her to return home from school, where he violently raped her. In another case, he was accused of raping a 14-year-old with a screwdriver.
What connects Blea to the West Side murders is a couple of known facts. One is a plastic SKU tag for a tree that was found with one of the victims. It is also a known fact that Blea illegally dumped garbage from his landscaping business near the West Mesa burial sites, which is strange and incriminating. It is known he had owned and operated his landscaping business since the nineteen-eighties. APD investigators believed “It is highly unlikely (the tag) blew into the pile of dirt after grave #2 had been dug up.” Blea’s own business records indicate he bought this particular variety of trees from a nursery in California.
The second connection is his own admission to cellmates about his interest in the West Mesa Murders and that he knew and had sex with or slapped some of the victims. He quickly recanted this statement when detectives questioned him about his statements.
Blea’s ex-wives had told detectives about his collection of panties and jewelry obtained from prostitutes. He had them stashed in his house and sheds. They also stated how much he hated prostitutes, which is strange considering his long-running history of association with them.
Today, Blea is currently rotting in prison serving a 90-year sentence. He was convicted in 2015 of multiple rape cases dating as far back as 1988. It is unlikely he will ever taste the air of freedom again, but is it possible he is a serial killer with his killing spree beginning in the eighties? Only Blea holds on to these dark truths and it appears he is not ready to tell his secrets as yet.
Lorenzo Montoyo was no stranger to prostitutes along Central or the violence he committed towards them. He was caught by APD on multiple occasions in the act of solicitation, or in one case, attempting to strangle a prostitute when all he had was a couple of bucks in his wallet instead of the forty bucks that were agreed upon for services rendered.
His long-running history of violence was also aimed at girlfriends. In one case, he threatened one girlfriend that he would ‘kill her and bury her in lime.’
In December of 2006, a couple of years before the discovery of the mass grave on the West Mesa, 39-year-old Montoyo was shot and killed in a shootout with a prostitute’s boyfriend. He had strangled a 19-year-old prostitute he met in an online chat room. The prostitute’s bodyguard/boyfriend was wondering what was going on and approached Montoya’s home. What he saw was Montoya carrying the body of the prostitute. He promptly shot and killed Montoya. The boyfriend was cleared of any wrongdoing.
But with Montoya’s death, came many questions that would forever be left unanswered.
Once the bodies of the women were discovered a couple of years later, Montoyo was immediately considered a suspect considering his past and the timeframes of the missing. Also, like Joseph Blea, Montoyo lived in close proximity to the mass grave. Although hardcore pornography, sex tapes, and other questionable items were found at Montoyos home at the time of his death, there was no evidence to link his involvement with the West Mesa murders.
The only item that keeps him connected to the murders is the timeline. All of the bodies discovered on the West Mesa occurred during the years 2001 through 2005. It was strange that after Montoyo’s death in 2006, any further disappearances and deaths stopped.
The item that also links Montoyo to possibly other disappearances and murders are some of the videos recovered from his home. Not only would Montoyo record some of his sexual encounters, but he also recorded the one video below which appears to be Montoyo taping up a body, or so it is alleged. No one truly knows what he was doing in the video but it does raise questions since he strangled his last victim with duct tape.
Attempting to solve the mystery of the West Side murders has taken many twists and turns. There are some viable suspects, but what if neither Blea nor Montoya are responsible for the West Side murders? It would undoubtedly mean that Suspect Three is still out there roaming the dark streets of Central at night.
If this theory is plausible, there is a strong possibility that Albuquerque may have had a quiet serial killer operating within its midst dating back to at least the nineteen-eighties, possibly earlier.
It is a known fact that Joseph Blea was roaming East Central during this timeframe. It has been established that his DNA was found with Jennifer Lynn Shirm, one of seven deaths reported during the years 1984 to 1988. He denies any involvement in Shirm’s death.
Could it then be assumed that Suspect Three was practicing his lethal trade before the West Mesa murders? It is a long shot and there is no evidence to support this theory but it is an interesting mention. It is even terrifying to think it is possible that Suspect Three would still be out there but how old would he be if he is even still alive?
It is almost entirely possible that Suspect Three was learning his ‘trade’ at this time frame. He would roam the East Central corridor, locate a suitable victim and murder her. But perhaps he learned it was not a good idea to leave his victims lying around to be found. He then learned to dispose of his crimes by transporting his victims to the West Side, (or any deserted lands that were close by) which was entirely desolate at that time, and burying them in mass graves.
If not Montoyo or Blea, then who is Suspect 3? The ever-lingering question is where is he now? Did he move away out of state to continue his rampage against prostitutes somewhere fresh? Or is it possible he is now deceased? Questions we may never know the answers to.
Although it is a theory, Suspect 3 is not to be entirely ruled out.
Keep in mind, there is a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the West Mesa killer. If you have any information, no matter how small it would seem, hit the contact links below.