Dr. Irene Blea is one person who hasn’t forgotten about the unsolved killings of 11 women and girls found murdered on Albuquerque’s West Mesa in February 2009.
The author of a new novel based on the slayings, “Daughters of the West Mesa,” Blea spoke about her book and the West Mesa case at a March 8 (International Women’s Day) webinar sponsored by the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP).
A sociologist by training, Blea was drawn to the case back in 2009 when she ran across news of the murders one evening on television and “saw a woman with a look I had never seen before.”
The revelations of mass murder with signs of gender violence sent Blea on a long journey as a participant observer. Along the way she met or talked with victims’ relatives and friends, women bikers and Albuquerque Police Department (APD) detectives assigned to the murder investigation. That included Ida Lopez, the now-retired APD officer who was tasked with probing the case for many years. Diving into the lives and deaths of the West Mesa women, Blea participated in prayer vigils, Aztec ceremonies and funerals.
“This was the talk of the town,” Blea recalled the chatter in the Duke City back in 2009. “If I went to the movies, I’d hear talk of West Mesa.”
On the advice of a retired officer, Blea visited APD’s crime lab to gain insights about the West Mesa crime and homicide investigations in general. Recounting a revealing experience about the type of society we live in, Blea told how she was stunned by the sight of bloody clothing, military style weapons and, most striking, pretty little guns.
“In their beauty, they struck me for what they are — things that destroy,” the veteran author said, adding that “research for this book took me to some very, very dark places.” Blea, who pursued a long career in academia before retiring, discussed how she decided to fictionalize the story after seeing how in the mass media the West Mesa women “had been maligned, and the families did not have a voice.”
The longtime Southwestern scholar noticed how news reports played up the victims as prostitutes and drug addicts.
“I’ve always been a Chicana feminist and I knew there was more to it than that,” Blea said.
Of the 11 victims recovered from the West Mesa, 10 were of Chicana and Native heritage and one was African-American. Two of the victims were young teenagers and one was pregnant. Long after disappearing between 2003 and 2005, the victims’ deteriorated remains were accidently discovered by a passerby in a field on Albuquerque’s West Mesa where a new housing subdivision had been under construction.
“This was a racist and ethnically targeted crime, and it was systematically so,” Blea maintained.
The victims included Victoria Chavez, Veronica Romero, Cinnamon Elks, Michelle Valdez, Jamie Barela, Evelyn Salazar, Monica Candelaria, Virginia Cloven, Sylliania Edwards, Doreen Marquez, and Julie Nieto. Valdez was pregnant at the time of her murder. Jamie Barela and Syllania Edwards were both 15 years of age when they were slain.
In addition to the West Mesa victims, the whereabouts are still not known of several other women who had similar profiles and went missing during the same years. For the most part, the West Mesa victims and the disappeared women are rarely mentioned in Albuquerque anymore.
According to Blea, speculation has swirled about the motives and identities of the West Mesa killer(s) — bikers, cops, a truck driver and a visitor to the Balloon Fiesta and State Fair — but no firm evidence has surfaced.
After discussing “Daughters of the West Mesa,” Blea fielded comments and questions from cyberspace. Among the women checking in was Eleanor Griego, the mother of one of the West Mesa victims. More than seven years after the worst case of serial murders in New Mexico history was exposed, Griego said she still sometimes visits the site where her daughter’s remains were found, finding it a lonely and trash-strewn place.
“I go up there every so often and I get so sad, leaving crying,” Griego told the webinar audience. “We’ve been forgotten about. I don’t want the girls to be forgotten. I feel like it’s already been forgotten.”
Blea and SWOP members assured Griego that the West Mesa women are not forgotten. The Albuquerque-based group has posted a petition at swop.net that calls on New Mexico officials to construct a memorial for the West Mesa victims, as well as to continue with an investigation until justice is done. After the murders jolted New Mexico in 2009, talk swirled in government and activist circles of building a memorial on the murder site, but as attention on the case dissipated so did proposals for the memorial.
In separate comments to FNS, SWOP’s Marisol Archuleta expounded on Dr. Blea’s comments, criticizing previous media coverage of the case and the widespread reproduction of some victims’ mug shots from old arrests as making the women “seem less than worthy.”
Like others, however, the West Mesa women were special to many in the community, the SWOP staffer said: “Every one of the women was a daughter and a child to someone.”
Urging community action so “the investigation doesn’t go cold,” Archuleta likewise supported renewed attention on the cases of disappeared women. “The connection hasn’t been properly made between (women) who’ve disappeared and bones and remains that haven’t been found,” she said.
Archuleta added that SWOP had scheduled a meeting with Albuquerque City Councilor Klarissa Peña so the goal of constructing a memorial for the victims of the West Mesa mass femicides can finally move forward.