West Mesa Murders: Serial Killer Who Slayed, Buried 11 Victims Remains Unidentified

“We need new information on this case, that is what is going to lead to it getting solved,” the city’s mayor says of whoever killed the girls and women.

The 11 victims whose remains were discovered at the West Mesa site in 2009.

Police in New Mexico continue to investigate the cold-case murders of 11 girls and women, but officials say they are hoping for new leads to identify whoever is responsible for the crimes that occurred between 2001 and 2005.

Photo by: City of Albuquerque

City of Albuquerque

By: Aaron Rasmussen

Police in New Mexico continue to investigate the cold-case murders of 11 girls and women, but officials say they are hoping for new leads to identify whoever is responsible for the crimes that occurred between 2001 and 2005.

“The only way this case is going to get solved is with our community’s help or even communities around us that might know something,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said last year. “We need new information on this case, that is what is going to lead to it getting solved.”

On Feb. 2, 2009, a woman’s dog discovered a human bone near a housing development on the West Mesa of Albuquerque. A subsequent month-long search by police turned up shallow graves in the area containing the remains of a total of 11 females and one unborn child, KRQE reported.

The victims, most of whom were Hispanic, were identified as Jamie Barela, 15; Monica Candelaria, 22; Victoria Chaves, 26; Virginia Cloven, 24; Syllania Edwards, 15; Cinnamon Elks, 32; Doreen Marquez, 24; Julie Nieto, 24; Veronica Romero, 28; Evelyn Salazar, 27; and Michelle Valdez, 22.

Former Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier oversaw the investigation and said in a 2018 interview that the department never “reached that stage to develop enough grounds or enough probable cause to point fingers at an individual.”

Still, according to KRQE, the names of two men, Lorenzo Montoya and Joseph Blea, have been widely reported as persons of interest in the case.

Police linked all but one victim to sex work, and Montoya had a long history of violence against sex workers. He was shot and killed in 2006 by the pimp of a woman he choked to death, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

After his slaying, the murders appeared to have ceased.

“We would have liked Mr. Montoya to have been our main suspect and closed the case out, but with him being deceased, it limited our investigative capabilities,” Geier said, according to KRQE.

“The similarities were there,” he continued, noting, however, that a thorough search of Montoya’s vehicle and residence, from the carpeting to his personal possessions, didn’t turn up anything that would tie him to the 11 murders.

The second man, Blea, is a convicted serial rapist who is currently serving 90 years behind bars in connection with four sexual assaults. According to the Albuquerque Journal, just a week after the bone was found on the West Mesa, Blea’s first wife contacted police and told them he should be investigated.

A search warrant affidavit obtained by the Journal shows Blea was often in an area known for sex work activity and had contact with police more than 130 times over a nearly 20-year period before the West Mesa victims’ bodies were unearthed.

Blea has always denied he had anything to do with the crimes.

Despite the lack of evidence against the two men, before he retired, Geier told KRQE he believed Blea and Montoya were “our two strongest candidates, so to speak, as the main suspects,” but, he conceded, “sometimes there’s a surprise and there may be someone we never even looked at.”

Retired APD Homicide Sergeant Liz Thompson now leads the Albuquerque Police Department Cold Case Unit that’s looking into the unsolved murders. Last winter, she told KRQE detectives had “a number of people being investigated as persons of interest.”

The killer, she said, “may have been charming, or friendly in order to build trust or a relationship of some kind with the women first.”

She added, “This person is a predator, he sought out vulnerable women.”

During his time on the force, Geier said he and others investigating the case never forgot the victims and their loved ones. “I think in the back of everyone’s mind is if we can win this one, that would be the biggest victory for this city,” he said of identifying the serial killer.

Albuquerque CrimeStoppers is offering a $100,000 reward in the case. Tips can be submitted by calling (505)768-2450 or Crime Stopper at (505)843-STOP.

For more on this case, stream ID's The Real Story with Maria Elena Salinas: “Lost Girls of the Mesa” on discovery+.

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