Las Desaparecidas

12 Years Since West Mesa Victims Discovered

From the Albuquerque Journal

It has been 12 years since the remains of Monica Candelaria, Doreen Marquez, Victoria Chavez, Veronica Romero, Jamie Barela, Evelyn Salazar, Syllania Edwards, Virginia Cloven, Cinnamon Elks, Julie Nieto, and Michelle Valdez and her unborn baby were found on the West Mesa of New Mexico.

On February 2nd, 2009, Christine Ross was walking her dog, Ruca, around the West Mesa. Ruca picked up a bone that looked suspiciously human, maybe a femur. Christine texted a picture to her sister, a nurse. Her sister recommended that Ross contact the police, because it was, in fact, a human femur. Over the next month, the incomplete remains were put together. At one point, investigators thought there were thirteen victims found, but the number was eventually narrowed down to eleven.

All of the women who were found went missing in 2003 or 2004.

In reality, not all of the victims were adult women. Syllania and Jamie were both only 15 years old at the time they went missing. They should’ve been high school freshmen, not buried in a remote, shallow grave, alone and tossed aside.

May 2003- Monica Candelaria disappeared by Atrisco and Central

October 2003- Doreen Marquez disappeared by Lead and University or the Barelas neighborhood

2004?- Victoria Chavez went missing

February 2004- Veronica Romero went missing

March 26, 2004- Cousins Jamie Barela, 15, and Evelyn Salazar, 27, go missing after heading towards a park on San Mateo and Gibson. 

May 2004?- Syllania Edwards, 15, was last seen in Aurora, Colorado, in May of 2004, but it is not known when she came to New Mexico. 

June 2004- Virginia Cloven was last heard from by her father in June of 2004. She had called to tell him she was engaged.

July 2004- Cinnamon Elks was last seen

August 2004- Julie Nieto was last seen

September 2004- A pregnant Michelle Valdez went missing

In 2005, Detective Ida Lopez began to notice similarities in these cases of missing women. Detectives had already heard back in 2003 that Monica had been stabbed, killed, and buried on the West Mesa. Cinnamon had been telling friends about a dirty cop who was killing women and burying them on the West Mesa, although she had heard that they had been beheaded. Cinnamon went missing weeks later. Julie Nieto’s family had heard something similar, and two different acquaintances of Julie’s called to report her missing as well. A “friend” of Michelle’s called Michelle’s sister weeks after her disappearance and said that she was sorry to hear of Michelle’s death and her burial on the West Mesa. Eventually Detective Lopez’s list had 24 names on it, according to some articles, though some of the victims- Jamie Barela and Syllania Edwards- were not included on it. (The most recent article from the Albuquerque Journal says that there were only 17 women on Det. Lopez’s list from 2001 to 2006.)

On February 2nd, 2009, a woman walking her dog on the West Mesa discovered a human femur bone. That started an investigation, which ultimately led to the identification of 11 women and an unborn baby: Monica Candelaria, Doreen Marquez, Victoria Chavez, Veronica Romero, Jamie Barela, Evelyn Salazar, Syllania Edwards, Virginia Cloven, Cinnamon Elks, Julie Nieto, and Michelle Valdez and her unborn baby. All of the women who were found went missing in 2003 or 2004.

Christine Julian, Anna Vigil, Felipa Gonzales, Nina Herron, Shawntell Waites, Vanessa Reed, and Leah Peebles have never been found and are still missing. Jillian Henderson-Ortiz also went missing in 2006, although from Moriarty.

Twelve years later, and there have been a handful of persons of interest, but none convicted of the crime, and law enforcement was and has not been told or discussed any additional evidence, if there is any.

One person of interest, Lorenzo Montoya, died in 2006 (before the mass grave was found) at the hand of a dancer’s boyfriend, after murdering the dancer, 19-year-old Shericka Hill. The police immediately found him suspicious and released an audio snippet where it sounded like Montoya was using duct tape and garbage bags to wrap something up, as well as several stills of Montoya’s homemade videos, presumably with sex workers. He did have several reports of being violent with sex workers, but he had no convictions. Montoya also had several run-ins with police for battery upon a household member, and he had threatened to kill a girlfriend and bury her in quicklime. Another interesting thing of note is that Montoya had called police at least five times to report that his car had been damaged or stolen while he was inside a movie theater. However, detectives didn’t think the times lined up with the disappearances of the women.

Two persons of fleeting interest were Fred Reynolds, a former pimp in Albuquerque, and Ron Irwin, a strange but seemingly harmless photographer from Joplin, Missouri.

Another person of interest was Joseph Blea, also known as the McKinley Middle School rapist. Though at first glance, Blea’s MO seems totally different, his DNA was found on the waistband of a deceased sex worker. He also had a history of solicitation, and police officers observed Blea stalking sex workers on Central Avenue. A tree tag from a nursery that he was known to purchase from was also found in the graves. Blea is currently serving 90 well-deserved years in prison, and refuses to talk about the West Mesa case.

At one time, Detective Mark Manary was the last detective left on the 118th Street Task Force, which is the investigation into the West Mesa murders. He said investigators dug into the victims’ pasts to create detailed timelines for the 2003 and 2004. He has also done the same for potential suspects, which has helped eliminate unnamed persons of interest. Investigator Ida Lopez, who had been the detective working missing persons at the time the women and girls had gone missing, had retired but came back to work on the task force as well. However, Detective Manary is no longer listed as on the 118th Street Task Force case page, and instead Detective Denice Myers is listed instead. There is still a $100,000 reward for information on the case. 

The only update to the case that I’ve been able to find is that there was a memorial created last year for the victims, a special place that they can be remembered by their families. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to go to the memorial myself, but Alibi has pictures of the memorial and even words from Michelle Valdez’s daughter. These women and girls were daughters, sisters, and some were mothers. It’s easy to forget how important they were to their families when we get to go home to ours, or the terror they may have experienced on their last day, regardless of their reason for being involved in or on the periphery of sex work. They did not deserve the end they met, and they deserve justice even 12 years later after the discovery of their remains. Again, two of the victims were underage and some of the victims were not involved in drugs or prostitution- and even if they were, they still didn’t deserve this.

Felipa Gonzales, Nina Herron, Leah Peebles, Darlene Trujillo, Anna Vigil, Shawntell Waites, Vanessa Reed, Christine Julian, and Jillian Henderson-Ortiz have never been found and are still missing. Jillian, Christine, Vanessa are not pictured.

Please call the 118th Street Task Force at 1-877-765-8273, (505) 768-2450 or Crime Stoppers at (505) 843-STOP with any information you may have concerning this crime.

You may also email information to Detective Denice Myers at or Investigator Ida Lopez at

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