Rosa's Cantina, Sandoval County, c. 1975

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Local and federal law enforcement seek new answers in 45-year-old murder

It was a warm July night in 1975, when Molly Sparks headed north to Rosa’s Cantina in her father’s white-over-blue Gran Torino to meet some college friends.

She never came home.

Her father went looking for her the next morning, found the car but no Molly. Later that day two boys discovered her badly beaten body while walking along the irrigation ditch running behind the small Algodones bar located about 20 miles north of Albuquerque.

Who killed Mary “Molly” Aleta Sparks has swirled with rumors and innuendo but has remained a mystery for 45 years.

In July the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office announced they were looking for new leads and witnesses in the decades-old case to see who remembers what, and if modern technology and genealogy DNA ties can help solve this brutal murder.

Molly Who?

Molly Sparks, Courtesy of family

In July 1975, Molly was just a few months into being 21. She was the oldest of four girls and one boy born to John and Mary Lee Sparks. The family lived in Albuquerque’s quiet North Valley and attended St. John’s Episcopal Church. Molly attended Manzano Day School and graduated from Sandia School For Girls, which is now Sandia Preparatory School, where she was on the ski team. She went to college in Denver for a couple of years before returning to her hometown where she received her degree from the University of New Mexico. She was a member of the SweatHogs women’s rugby team. She had a job at a local Indian jewelry company that she enjoyed. Molly had begun dating a young man who was working out of town that summer, and it looked promising. All of this is pretty normal stuff for a young woman her age, until she is found beaten and strangled in an irrigation ditch in Algodones. In 2020, Molly would have been 66 years old.

What’s Up FBI?

Why after four-plus decades has the FBI taken an interest in this case? Molly’s body was found in an area of checkerboard pueblo land where the feds would have jurisdiction. The dirt crime scene is across the street and within sight of a very old adobe church sitting on San Felipe Pueblo land. Sandoval County Sheriff’s Department initially investigated the case but got nowhere. According to current Sandoval County Sheriff James Casaus, Molly’s body was found on July 24, 1975 in an irrigation ditch west of the Cantina. Casaus said it is possible she was killed somewhere else and her body moved to the ditch.

The G-men and women are well known for being tight-lipped; they like to neither confirm nor deny whatever you ask them. And that is true in this case. Other than what was publicly released at its press conference, not much has been revealed. Under the category of general crimes, the FBI tackles a wide range of crimes, from ones committed on tribal land to taking out terrorism to chasing serial killers.

According to FBI Special Agent in Charge James Langenberg, the team is hoping that witnesses come forward to provide more information on who Molly was with and, possibly, who she left the bar with. Agent Langenberg said they are very confident people who are familiar with the circumstances of the case remain in the community. He said advancements in data and DNA technology could lead to a successful resolution to this case.

Let’s Go Back In Time

The local bar scene in the Albuquerque Metro area in 1975 was varied and vibrant. There was the Triangle at Central and Girard where the APD Substation is now. Down the street was the rowdy Okies. Who can forget the original Ned’s? And a little further north was Rosa’s Cantina and Rapheal’s Silver Cloud in Algodones. The East Mountains rocked out at the Golden Inn, Santa Fe danced at The Line Camp and so many other venues. The local music scene was just as rich and varied, with at least a couple dozen local bands playing all types of music in the bars.

Molly told her family that she was going to meet some of her rugby friends at Rose’s Cantina for the bluegrass music by the then-popular Clear Ditch Ramblers. This fateful night was quarter tequila shot night at Rosa’s. Molly’s friends and family say she wasn’t much of a drinker but liked to hang out, listen to the music and dance.

Packed House

That night the tiny adobe bar would have been packed with college students, young professionals like doctors, lawyers and other business people taking in the music and 25-cent tequila shots. Also present that night would have been the usual colorful crew of locals and barflies. Rosa’s was known to be a place where members of local motorcycle groups, such as the Bandidos, would hang out. There could have been people traveling along the nearby Interstate-25 looking for a cold one and some good music. Or looking for trouble. The crowd would have spilled out into the dirt lot to the north, which was bordered to the west by an irrigation ditch. Conflicting statements about Molly’s movements that night did not help. Until two boys were walking along the ditch and they saw something in the water. The boys thought at first it was a mannequin but became frightened when they realized it was a person.

According to some reports, it rained the next day erasing any chance of footprints or other evidence. A pair of Japanese sandals were found at the scene, as reported in an article in the Albuquerque Journal.

Coppers Then And Now

In a way, from the beginning, this investigation left much to be desired. Then Sandoval County Sheriff Robert Budagher treated the case like a hot potato after the initial round of media attention. A couple of the deputies did the necessary interviews. It is alleged much of the county’s paper case file was lost due to ineptness on the part of one of the deputies. This was the late ’70s, when there was no such thing as a personal computer. The case stalled. It would sputter to life on and off over the decades. But eventually, 45 years would pass. And then along came the well-resourced feds to take another look. To shake up those who may still be around to say what they know, finally.

Molly And A Women’s Safety Movement

While the killer was eluding justice and the Keystone Cops fumbled the case, a movement began with women demanding safer bars, better lighting. The women made the local newspapers with their passion for safer streets. The 22-member group of UNM students and former students, called themselves Personal Safety Advocates. Martha Moran, a spokeswoman for the group at the time, said the group was formed in response to Molly’s death. The goals were adequate lighting, security guards and security patrols at all public meeting places, such as the parking lots of bars, shopping centers, restaurants, theaters and parks. Members of the group gathered petitions, asked the city council at the time to draft an ordinance to help with better lighting around the UNM area. They also spoke with other government officials, police and organizations to find a solution to the growing problem of assaults on women. All this was happening because of Molly.

La Famila Doesn’t Forget

Both of Molly’s parents died in the last handful of years without getting any real answers, justice or closure. Her sisters and brother keep up the faith and chase leads as they come up. They feel strongly that someone knows something that will crack this case.

The Paper. engaged in a COVID-safe conversation with Molly’s brother, John Sparks, Jr., who lives in the Village of Los Ranchos, just a short hop north of where he and his sisters grew up at the west end of Campbell Road.

The Paper.: As her brother, you have memories of Molly growing up. What is a memory of her that would illustrate who she was to you? Or to your family?

John Sparks Jr.: As people sometimes say, it is complicated. I think in many ways she, as the oldest, was cast in the role of authoritarian. From the perspective of my sisters, there was both an admiration and a jealousy. The dynamic of my being second oldest and the oldest male plays to so many archetypes. She was fiercely independent and very strong willed. When she was around 8, my parents purchased a horse for her, Cherie. Cherie was a really stubborn horse. She was a half-hand too short to be considered a horse but too tall for a pony. Molly loved her horse. She would ride her alone to the river. Molly was always the trailblazer in some ways. Academically apt, graduated early from high school.

Both of your parents are now dead. It must have been hard for them to go through the many decades without any clear answers. How did that impact your family dynamics? How did your family remember Molly at holidays?

Mom and dad were both first-born children of the generation forged by WWII. Dad served in the Army Air Corps; and after she graduated from college, Mom worked as an airline stewardess. They both loved N.M. and decided to embark on an independent life in what was viewed as a frontier by many in the East. I recall Molly telling a story related by one of the teachers at St. Vincent’s where, after she arrived here, she received a correspondence asking about Indian attacks. An untamed land and two people who were stoic and self-contained Simultaneously to Molly’s death, the family dynamic was changing with the third child of their five leaving for college. So they turned to other things, kept themselves busy with church and community. They hosted lots of guests over the years and many exchange students who still stay in touch.

Molly was a female rugby player in the mid-’70s at the University of New Mexico. Molly met friends at then-popular Rosa’s Cantina in Algodones for 25-cent tequila shot night. Who would have been there that night? Locals? Students? Professionals? Bikers?

Molly began her college career at [Denver University] but transferred back for her last two years. Most of her high school friends had gone different directions, scattered to the wind. I never knew Molly to be much of a party person; I never saw her intoxicated, but I knew she was not averse. Rosa’s was known as a destination, much like the Golden Inn or the Mine Shaft. However, it was the 1970s. I know that Rosa’s was a place where the Bandidos were known to hang out. But mostly I think it was the college crowd. Ned’s, Oakies, etc. I do know that there were several people associated with the Women’s Rugby who admitted to having been there that night but said they did not see anything.

Molly’s killer could be dead by now; or they still could be rumbling around the area. Time passing has a way of letting tongues loosen up a bit. What is the best possible outcome of this renewed push for answers?

Personally believing what Gandhi was quoted as saying, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” for me is a just resolution on what happened that night. Imprisonment won’t undo what occurred, but answers will remove the sense that, “They know who I am, but I don’t know who they are,” that my family has had to endure.

If Molly were here today, what do you think she would have done with her life? What would you say to her?

Such a question. I know that Molly had made plans to travel to Europe and visit with her classmate from Finland. Looking back at my life and asking where I thought I would be and where I ended up is so divergent. But I think she would have lived a life with passion if nothing else.

If you have any information about the murder of Molly Sparks, contact the FBI at fbi.gov/albuquerque
or call 889-1300
or the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Department
or Crime Stoppers at 843-STOP
or go to crimestoppersnm.com

You can remain anonymous.