In this article:
- The West Mesa Bone Collector is a serial killer who murdered 11 women in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
- In February 2009, a woman walking her dog found the victims’ remains in a 100-acre area of the West Mesa desert that had previously been cleared for construction.
- Because the suspect was never found, people have speculated that other women who went missing in the area were murdered and their remains buried elsewhere.
- Theories about the West Mesa Killer’s true identity point to one of the victim’s ex-husbands, an online sexual predator, and a “commercial enterprise”.
Communities assume the worst when women go missing and in 2009, the worst fears of 11 families were confirmed when their loved ones were discovered in a state only slightly less horrifying than the fate met by Junko Furuta.
The remains of 11 women were found in the desert of West Mesa. Reduced to nothing but bones, forensic specialists had to use DNA testing to identify the women, one of whom was only Syllannia Edwards, the sole African-American victim who was 15 years old when she was murdered.
A Woman and Her Dog Discover the West Mesa Murders
When Christine Ross headed out for a walk on a cool February evening, the last thing she expected was to stumble into one of the most mysterious serial killer cases that New Mexico has ever seen.
Ross lived at West Side Albuquerque, a suburban area filled with open roads, cul-de-sacs, and spacious yards where families gathered to play with their children. It wasn’t the kind of place you would expect to be unsafe so Ross put her dog, a Shar-Pei mix named Ruca, on a leash and brought him with her.
The pair began walking towards an empty lot near Ross’ house. It had recently been cleared to make way for new construction, but while there were no additional neighbors, the lot was 100 acres of free space for a dog to run around in.
So Ross removed Ruca’s leash.
At first, it seemed that the dog was just excited about being able to run in an open space, but as Ruca returned it became clear that he had found something. In the darkness, it could have looked like a stick or a broken piece of wood left behind by construction workers.
But the closer Ruca got, the odder it looked. Ross then realized that her dog had just brought her a bone. She took a photo of it and sent it to her sister, a nurse, who confirmed that it was a human femur.
Ross and Ruca rush home to call the police, kicking off a string of investigations that would uncover what has been dubbed the largest serial killer crime scene in American history.
Ida’s Girls: The 11 Victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector
Christine Ross may have been the one to find the West Mesa burial ground, but it was Ida Lopez who had been searching for them for years. Lopez is a detective working for the Albuquerque Police Department (APD).
Though statistics show that most missing persons in the U.S. are eventually found, Lopez noticed a pattern emerge among the cases reported within Albuquerque: the missing persons were often young women from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Ida Lopez took to calling the missing women of West Mesa “her girls,” adopting the responsibility of looking for 17 women who disappeared between 2001 and 2006. She was able to find their families and learn a bit about them.
Lopez found that many of these women had lived a hard life, with most of them having been involved or suspected of being involved in sex work. Some of the people who knew them told Lopez that the women had a history of drug use and had connections to gangs.
Here’s a look at the victims whose backgrounds and circumstances of discovery generated promising leads or broke away from the pattern of the West Mesa Bone Collector’s
Jamie Barela was only 15 years old when she went missing together with Evelyn Salazar, her cousin who was 23 years old at the time. Salazar was the 10th West Mesa Bone Collector victim to be identified.
Despite her mother’s hopes that she would be found before the final victim of the West Mesa Bone Collector was identified, the final 11th skeleton turned out to be hers.
Barela was the only victim that did not have a known history related to drugs or sex work.
Monica Candelaria was 21 years old when she vanished. Friends and family members of the young woman contacted the authorities, believing she had been murdered and buried in West Mesa since she had a previous conviction for sex work. Despite this, Candelaria’s disappearance was declared a cold case.
Victoria Chavez was another of the West Mesa Bone Collector’s victims that had a history of sex work convictions. Court records showed she had been convicted on five separate occasions. The first bones to be identified in the burial grounds belonged to her.
Virginia Cloven is another tragic figure among the victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector. She lived in a trailer with her family in Los Chavez and was said to be a fun-loving young girl until her brother was killed in a homicide.
Tensions at home compelled Cloven to run away and live with her grandparents before living with her subsequent boyfriends, one of whom was a convicted criminal.
Cloven’s remains were found together with the other West Mesa Bone Collector’s victims and a curious addition — a plant bag that was found to have contained a Spearmint Juniper, an evergreen tree commonly used in landscape design.
Syllannia Edwards was 15 years old at the time of her murder and was the only African-American victim of the West Mesa Bone Collector. Unlike other victims, she had no friends and family who could give additional information about her affairs or report her missing in the first place.
Police officers suspect that she may have been a “circuit girl” who served as a sex worker along the I-40 Interstate corridor and that was traveling alongside three other women under a pseudonym.
Doreen Marquez was 27 years old when she disappeared and left behind two daughters. She became addicted to drugs, forcing her mother to keep her children and kick her out of the family home on the condition that she could return if she stopped using. Marquez never came back.
Marquez had no known history of involvement with sex work.
The Other Victims of the West Mesa Bone Collector
Cinnamon Elks was 32 years old when she went missing and was friends with three other victims: Victoria Chavez, Gina Michelle Valdez, 22; and Juliet Nieto, 23. Another victim, Veronica Romero, was 27 years old when she went missing on February 14, 2004.
Suspects for the West Mesa Murders
Joseph Blea came under suspicion of Albuquerque police and his own friends and family following the discovery of the West Mesa Bone Collector’s victims. due to his history of odd sexual behavior and repeated stalking of sex workers in the area.
It was his ex-wife, April Gillen, who told Albuquerque police to investigate him as Blea had previously been accused of raping a 14-year-old girl with a screwdriver. Aside from this, Blea’s DNA had also been found on the remains of a dead prostitute. He would also expose himself to women and stalk sex workers along Central Avenue.
During the investigations for the West Mesa murders, Blea admitted to police that he knew the victim and that he had previously hired them.
But before you think his confession was out of pity for the murdered women, think again because Blea’s own cellmate told police offers that he would call the dead women “trashy,” degrading them on basis of their involvement in sex work.
Another thing worth noting about Blea is that he would buy plants from nurseries that sold plants from California. It just so happens that the Spearmint Juniper plant bag found with Virginia Cloven’s bones was traced back to a nursery in California.
Blea is currently serving a 90-year sentence for a string of sexual assault convictions.
Lorenzo Montoya had died in 2006 before any of the West Mesa Bone Collector’s victims were found. He had a history of lurking in the area as well as picking up a prostitute before proceeding to rape and strangle her.
Police found that he only had $2 on him at the time, a sign that Montoya never intended to pay the prostitute and, perhaps, let her live.
Montoya was also reported for physically abusing his girlfriend and threatening to “kill and bury me in lime,” as his then-girlfriend told police. Montoya later murdered a sex worker. The woman’s boyfriend later came looking for her and murdered Montoya.
Dirk Gibson, a professor at the University of New Mexico known for his books about serial killers, suspects that the West Mesa Bone Collector did not have personal motives but was instead a “commercial serial killer” who disposed of women in exchange for money.
He also proposes that the West Mesa Bone Collector is someone familiar with the area but is not a local.
The 13-Year Search for the West Mesa Bone Collector
February 2022 marked the 13-year anniversary of the West Mesa murders and the unending search for the West Mesa Bone Collector.
Continuing investigations have uncovered eight more missing women whose disappearances may be connected to the murders, maybe even victims of the same serial killer themselves. Their names are as follows:
- Martha Luther, 32
- Anna Vigil, 20
- Felipa Gonzales, 23
- Nina Herron, 21
- Jillian Ortiz Henderson, 19
- Shawntell Waites, 29
- Leah Peebles, 23
- Vanessa Reed, 24
All eight women were reported missing between 2005 to 2006, a year after the first group of women disappeared. Like the first eleven missing women, these eight women also had a history of drug use and convictions for engaging in sex work.
Until now, there is no conclusive lead as to who the West Mesa Bone Collector is, leading many locals to suspect that the serial killer is still operating in Albuquerque.
“Thirteen years is a long time to wait for justice and we are committed to finding answers for all the families who lost loved ones to this tragedy,” Chief Harold Medina said on the anniversary of the West Mesa discovery.
The West Mesa Task Force, a team dedicated to searching for the West Mesa Bone Collector, has been investigating leads for years. Investigator Liz Thompson shared that two tips received in 2018 had led to searches but did not produce any answers.
The task force and victims’ friends and family members have urged the public to step forward should they have information that could help the investigation.
If you happen to have information on the West Mesa murders or on the possible identity of the West Mesa Bone Collector, you can contact (505)-768-2450 or Crime Stoppers at (505)-843-STOP.
Investigator Ida Lopez, who is still on the hunt for who killed her girls, can be reached at ILopez@cabq.gov.