It's been 12 years since the first bone was found on the West Mesa. That's a long time, but an even longer time since the 11 women and one unborn fetus were murdered and dumped in the desert on the edge of Albuquerque. The area is built up now, and the almost 100 acres of land that was considered the crime scene is surrounded by neighborhoods, creating an almost surreal scene, for sure. In the summer of 2020, the City of Albuquerque dedicated a one-acre memorial park to the victims found—and those still missing—and their families.
Eleanor Griego is the mother of Julie Nieto, one of the West Mesa victims. She hates being known for that, but she also realizes that's the reality of her life. The park is a refuge for her, especially this time of year. "Usually there's nobody here. It's calming and peaceful, and I'm able to collect my thoughts and have a good cry," she said.
In 2007 APD detective Ida Lopez spoke with journalist Maggie Shepard about how she had a file of at least 17 missing women she called “her girls” from the streets of Albuquerque. That conversation was the beginning of a nearly 14-year quest for Lopez. All of the girls had gone missing from 2001 to 2006. Most of the 17 women had been in and out of the drug addiction lifestyle of the streets, and many had prostitution charges on their records as well. But to Ida, and the families of the girls, they were so much more than the circumstances of their lifestyle.
Of the original 17 women, the 11 found on the mesa were: Cinnamon Elks, Veronica Romero, Monica Candelaria, Syllania Edwards, Julie Nieto, Jamie Barela, Doreen Marquez, Virginia Cloven, Evelyn Salazar and Michele Valdez (who was six months pregnant). Both Syllania Edwards and Jamie Barela were only 15 at the time of their disappearance. Edwards was also the only African-American victim and the only victim from out of state. She was reported as a runaway in 2003 by police in Lawton, Oklahoma.
There have always been many unanswered questions with regard to the timeline of the disappearance and murder of each of the women. Due to lifestyle it has been hard to track an exact date of when they went missing, although several family members can remember the last time they saw their loved one. No cause of death has been made public, and no exact date of death has been reported for any of the victims.
To this day no official suspects have ever been named. Albuquerque Police maintain that this is not a cold case and say they have a task force of several detectives who still work on the case. While there were a handful of potential suspects in the aftermath of the dig, none of them were ever charged with a crime. The only two that remain in the public eye are Lorenzo Montoya and Joseph Blea.
Montoya, a pressman at a local printer, was killed in 2006 after killing a 19-year-old woman named Shericka Hill he had hired online as a dancer at his home. Her boyfriend, Frederick Williams, followed her to the house and shot Montoya outside of his home as he was trying to put her body into the trunk of his car. Williams claimed he shot in self-defense after Montoya started shooting at him. At the time law enforcement said they didn’t believe this was his first time Montoya had killed someone, because the crime was simply "too brutal." Montoya lived roughly three miles away from the burial site of the 11 women in the South Valley.
Joseph Blea is a 64-year-old convicted rapist serving a 90-year prison sentence in Otero County Correctional Facility for sexual assault. The 63-year-old Blea had a landscape business in the South Valley when he was convicted in 2015 on rape and kidnapping charges from multiple cases ranging from 1988 to 1993. He was dubbed the “Mid-School Rapist” because he was known to stalk his victims from the area around McKinley Middle School. His youngest victim was 13 years old. Police records show that Blea frequented sex workers on east Central Ave. At one point his name was connected with the brutal murder of a sex worker found dumped off of Central Ave. But charges were never brought against him. Blea has never been charged with any connection to the West Mesa murders. Law enforcement has never made any connection between the two men.
The case remains open according to APD, and the task force still gets tips. While that may be true, those tips have not moved the case forward in the eyes of Eleanor Griego. "I've never had contact with anyone from the police department in years. Ida called me last year when COVID first hit, just to check on me and see how I was doing. She had nothing to say about the case." Griego says her daughter's son is now grown and living his own life. "I'm alone now with my dogs at home. I'm tired, and I just want closure. Those girls deserve closure, but I don't know if we'll ever get it."
If you have any information about the West Mesa murders, or about other missing women related to this case, Albuquerque Police have a dedicated hotline. Call the 118th Street Task Force at 1-877-765-8273 or (505) 768-2450. There is a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible.
Want to learn more?
Tierna Unruh-Enos (also our amazing editor) produces a podcast about the West Mesa murders and all the lives -- victims, survivors, cops and more -- that intersect around and in Albuquerque's largest unsolved murder case. Listen to The Mesa on Anchor podcasts now.
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