Who's Murdering the Prostitutes of Albuquerque?

At least 12 young women have been murdered, their bodies found in a pit in the desert. Sally Denton investigates the unanswered questions.

The body count stands at 12—13 if you include the fetus—all young women heinously murdered and then deep-sixed into the grit of a forlorn desert. Their families claim the local police made no effort to find them after they were reported missing. The women knew each other from Albuquerque’s War Zone—the notorious neighborhood where prostitutes and drug dealers ply their trade. They were young and Hispanic, many were mothers, and all were living what the Albuquerque police euphemistically refer to as a “high-risk lifestyle.”

They disappeared between 2001 and 2006 and were apparently afraid for their lives.

Cinnamon Elks, one of the seven who have been identified so far, told friends shortly before her August 2004 disappearance that “a dirty cop was chopping off the heads of prostitutes and burying them on the West Mesa,” according to Joline Gutierrez-Krueger of the Albuquerque Journal. Police have not revealed the causes of death, so whether the victims were decapitated is unknown. But that has not stopped the rumors flying wildly on the streets of the city. The police have refused to reveal details of the evidence uncovered at the crime scene—an 18-foot-deep pit called “the bowl” on a 92-acre site west of the city. Nor have they speculated about suspects except to assure residents that if the murders were the work of a serial killer, the perpetrator has either died or moved to another city. But despite law enforcement reassurance, the macabre excavation has kept the community on edge for the past 12 weeks and has spotlighted the dark side of the largest city in New Mexico.

“Gina Michelle Valdez, 22, wasn’t big news to them… She wasn’t a blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American college student inexplicably snatched from the nice part of town.”

The gruesome discovery belied the tranquility of the once-picturesque basaltic plateau, a sacred site for Native Americans that was home to coyotes and eagles, and situated near the most dramatic petroglyphs in the Southwest—carvings created between 3000 B.C. and 500 A.D. by Anasazi farmers, hunter-gatherers, and Spanish sheepherders. Now, the “West Mesa is a dusty escarpment littered with trash dumps and tire tracks, spent slugs and brambly weeds,” as High Country News writer Laura Paskus recently described the crime scene. Like the discarded bones of these forgotten women, the ravaged landscape has come to symbolize the violence against women.

It all began innocently enough, on February 2, 2009, when Christine Ross and her dog Ruca took their regular walk in an area that had been recently leveled for a housing subdivision. On top of the dirt, Ruca found a large femur bone. “It didn’t look normal. Our gut instinct told us it wasn’t supposed to be there,” Ross told a reporter. Suspecting it was human, she photographed it on her cellphone and texted it to her nurse sister who confirmed the suspicion. She called the police who began the three-month-long dig at the country’s largest crime scene—the landscape equivalent to 75 football fields. On April 25, they ended the search, declaring that no more bodies could be found. “We estimate we’ve moved over 40,000 cubic yards of dirt,” Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz told the media. Seven victims have been identified: Monica Candelaria, 21; Veronica Romero, 26; Cinnamon Elks, 31; Julie Nieto, 23; Victoria Chavez, 28; Doreen Marquez, 27; and Michelle Valdez, 22, who was four months' pregnant.

Police are still seeking clues about the remaining Jane Does, and have published the photograph of an acrylic nail with an unusual hot pink design hoping that a local manicurist might recognize it. All of the identified women were on a list of 16 compiled by the department’s missing-persons unit, and all had a history of prostitution. Many were addicted to heroin, some were police informants, and several left small children behind.

“That somebody would do this to my daughter and dump her like she was a piece of trash and leave her lying out there with no dignity. I am devastated and angry,” said Karen Jackson, the mother of Michelle Valdez, capturing the grief and fury that the women’s families feel. After years of frustration with the local police, who rarely returned their phone calls or pursued the investigative tips the families provided, the victims’ relatives are outraged. “Nobody has listened to us for so many years,” said Lori Gallegos, a childhood friend of Doreen Marquez, who was last seen in October 2003 dropping her son off at Calvary Christian Academy. “These girls all had dreams,” said the father of one of the missing. “No girl grows up wanting that.”

The undercurrent of racism lies just beneath the surface, as grieving families snub the local media, which they say ignored them when they were seeking help in finding their loved ones. “Gina Michelle Valdez, 22, wasn’t big news to them,” columnist Gutierrez-Krueger wrote of the dismissal of the story by a local television station. “She wasn’t a blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American college student inexplicably snatched from the nice part of town.”

While detectives have said “the same person or persons” are responsible for the deaths, they have floated many theories—none of which include a serial killer. Based on the many scenarios, it would seem that Albuquerque’s West Mesa has long been a dumping ground for gangs, pimps, and drug dealers. Police Chief Schultz told the Albuquerque Journal that suspects include a man who strangled a prostitute in 2006 and was later shot to death; a pimp who died this year of natural causes; members of one of Albuquerque’s ubiquitous gangs who used prostitutes as “mules” for smuggling drugs and then killed them so they couldn’t testify against the smugglers; or someone who “had something against prostitutes” or who “thought they were doing the Lord’s work by killing these people.” Additional theories include gangs that require the murder of a woman as an initiation ritual, or hired killers hired by powerful political figures who fear the women could tie them to the city’s vast and profitable world of vice.

New Mexico has a long tradition of silencing its women who know too much about the seamier side of the “land of enchantment,” as the state’s slogan depicts the locale. One need only look at the string of murdered women in the capital of Santa Fe in the 1990s, or the cluster of 1970s murders of young Hispanic northern New Mexico women who were tied to a drug ring that received police protection. But the most intriguing and infamous case of all—the one that is still discussed in hushed tones exactly 60 years later—is the murder of Cricket Coogler.

In early April 1949, the petite 18-year-old barfly was found in a shallow grave in the desert of southern New Mexico. Spunky and adventurous, Cricket epitomized the “high-risk lifestyle” law enforcement would later describe. Among her many lovers were the state’s most prominent politicians and office-holders. A flamboyant party girl in the then-wide-open gambling town of Las Cruces, she consorted with notorious national gangsters who had set their sights on Santa Fe as the country’s new gambling capital and were paying protection money to New Mexico government officials. “Like many another teenager, she was chiefly interested in excitement, romance and escape from throttling poverty,” as a contemporaneous Time magazine account described her. The man with whom she was most often linked was Joseph “Little Joe” Montoya—then lieutenant governor who would go on to become U.S. senator in 1964, the Coogler case an albatross around his neck during his entire political career.

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The probing by an industrious news reporter into Cricket’s murder and its coverup led to the unraveling of a statewide power structure. When it was over, a grand jury returned 58 indictments against 25 people and “brought the cold sweat of apprehension springing to the brows of many a high-placed gambler and politico,” according to a 1949 Time article.

The diminutive Cricket could never have imagined that she would become a household name in New Mexico, that her murder and its aftermath would be synonymous with the complete restructuring of a state’s political system, and that her fate would serve to remind future generations of New Mexico that young women are not always expendable. Maybe, like Cricket Coogler’s, the legacy of the West Mesa women will be exposure and reform of a corrupt and entrenched system.

Sally Denton is a writer based in Santa Fe and author of six books, including The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America and the forthcoming The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas (Bloomsbury Press).