13 years later search for West Mesa killer continues

·4 min read

Feb. 3—Thirteen years after 11 women and an unborn child were found buried in unmarked graves on Albuquerque's West Mesa, investigators say they haven't given up hope their killer will be found.

They continue to receive tips on a weekly basis and as recently as over the summer dug into a site looking for a second burial ground. That search came up empty.

At a news conference Wednesday morning — the anniversary of when the first bone was found — officials urged anyone who may know something about the case to come forward.

"The only way this case is going to get solved is with our community's help, or even (people in) communities around us that might know something," said Mayor Tim Keller. "We need new information on this case."

Liz Thomson, a former homicide sergeant, retired from the Albuquerque Police Department in late 2017 but has since come back as a contract investigator working on cold cases. She said the department has received over a thousand tips in the West Mesa case, interviewed hundreds of people and identified many persons of interest over the years.

The women had been reported missing in the early to mid 2000s and as APD detective Ida Lopez began to investigate she suspected they would be found all together, Thomson said. Eight other women disappeared under similar circumstances around the same time but their bodies have not been found.

Thomson said the killer preyed on vulnerable women and may have previously attacked someone without killing them and then escalated to murder and burying the bodies so as to conceal the crimes.

"We believe the burying of the women's bodies is key," Thomson said. "The person responsible had the means and the know-how to not only navigate a then remote and barely accessible area of the West Mesa, but to also methodically dig and then bury the women without clues such as clothing, personal items, or evidence of the method of killing such as bullets, bullet casings, or remarkable blunt force trauma."

There are two men who police have publicly identified as suspects — Lorenzo Montoya and Joseph Blea.

Montoya was killed in 2006 after he reportedly invited an escort to his trailer and strangled her. He was in the middle of trying to dispose of the woman's body when her boyfriend shot and killed him.

Blea is serving a 90-year prison sentence for sexual assaults unrelated to the West Mesa case.

But Thomson said they are not the only suspects investigators are considering. She said there has been "an extreme, almost urban legend type focus on those two individuals" that jeopardizes the search for other suspects.

"There is no eyewitness account, no confession, or definitive piece of evidence tying them directly to any one, or more importantly, to all of the bodies buried on the West Mesa," Thomson said.

Mary Gutierrez reported her daughter Victoria Chavez missing in March 2005. Almost four years later hers was the first body found.

"It was unbelievable," Gutierrez remembered, tearing up as her grandson comforted her. "It was like how could one person or anybody do this to 11 girls ... it was devastating, it was traumatizing, and it still is. It never goes away."

Chavez — a fun and outgoing young woman who loved to fish, hike and camp — was the oldest of Gutierrez's four children.

In June of 2020 the city completed a park memorializing the women on the site where they were found near 118th street and Dennis Chavez SW. The park features each woman's name next to hand-painted crosses, artificial flowers and other mementos.

For Gutierrez, she celebrates her daughter and her memory, but going out to the park is difficult.

"I feel something bad and evil happened there and it's hard for me to go to it," she said. "I know it's a memorial and it's a sacred place now, but I find it hard to do things like that."

Tips: Officials are offering a reward of up to $100,000 information leading to an arrest. Anyone with information is urged to contact (505)-768-2450, report anonymously to Crime Stoppers at (505)-843-STOP, or contact investigator Ida Lopez at ILopez@cabq.gov.

To learn more about the case go to the Journal's special report