tv Dateline MSNBC July 20, 2019 12:00am-2:00am PDT
there weren't just two women that were missing. there were whole bunches of them. >> so many young women missing. one woman determined to find them. >> i would tell them we're one day closer to finding your daughter. >> the numbers grew. the families hurt. >> she says i have some bad news for you. >> she searched for the innocent. she hunted the guilty. >> first words out of the girl's mouth was that he was trying to kill her. >> the reality is it was kind of like this is not happening. >> and under a desert sky the lost waited to be found. >> another one here, then another one there. >> he may be waiting to start doing the same thing again. >> missing women. forgotten by almost everyone but her. >> i just always felt that they were going to be together. if you find one, you're going to find them all. >> sometimes ida lopez simply can't wait for sunday. sometimes in the middle of her work week the albuquerque detective feels a pressing need
for spiritual solace and divine guidance. the fall of 2005 was one of those times. it was a time when a sinister force seemed to be snatching women off the streets of new mexico's largest city. and the devoutly religious detective knew she needed all the help she could get. >> i think it's somebody who's very organized. i think he's been preying on his victims, has a particular victim in mind. >> reporter: sticking up for victims comes naturally to ida lopez. it's the same instinct that drew her to police work years ago, when she was a kid, growing up in albuquerque. >> i was about 9 years old. actually, it was my grandfather raised me.ctdehiizedis s co enowas ait wde.lo he was about in his 80s. and i'm in the porch area. and there's a foot chase. and the guy goes toward him, and he's tackled by police. i just thought that was the coolest thing i'd ever seen.ce and so that curiosity. n.d then there was the service part, the helping people part of police work. >> reporter: after college ida graduated from the police academy and joined the force as a uniformed officer.ol >> most of my areas that i ce worked, especially patrol, i was assigned working the prostitutes in the area. >> reporter: and so she learned
about the lives of the women on the street. and it was here while posing as a decoy during prostitution sting operations that she learned the raw power of their addictions. s i just learned the absolute e dependence on the drug for the girls because there's no way in your right mind you're going to get into a car and do what this person just told you to do. there's no way. t and so that gave me an empathy for them on that part, and i thought, wow, this has got to be powerful. >> reporter: over the years ida's career blossomed. she made detective, married
another cop, and started a family. her future seemed assured. but in 2004 while pregnant with her second child doctors discovered a mass in ida's right kidney. >> it was growing, and i had kidney cancer. >> what did doctors tell you? >> well, they were shocked. they said it wasn't common in women and it wasn't common in women my age. he wouldn't say what the plans were because the only, you know, close person i knew had cancer and died. and i thought, well, i need to make further plans. you know, my husband's got young kids to take care of. >> frightening. >> then about a month and a half after i was diagnosed, then i had my kidney removed. >> reporter: surgeons also removed ida's adrenal gland because it too had a mass on ite
but because doctors caught the cancer early, ida required neither chemo nor radiation therapy. ida's return to work would have to be gradual, if it was going to happen at all.s >> for a lot of people that would be the end of police work. >> right. >> not for you. >> no. i wasn't done. >> reporter: and so in july 2005, after a few months of recuperation as a reserve officer, the department offered ida a 20-hour-a-week desk job working missing persons. >> missing persons is kind of a backwater in a lot of departments.
i mean, that's not exactly, you know, the premier detective job. >> right. right. it's where they needed somebody, and it worked out, you know, for me. and for them. missing persons, you know, was busy. the position was there. and it was i thought perfect timing. >> reporter: as you will soon see, timing, both perfect and not so perfect, will play a critical part in the story we're about to show you. within weeks of starting her new job, ida was handed two missing persons files. those two files would mark the beginning of the biggest case in her career and would turn into pabarmis.markintos most heinouy crime stories. but at the time it was routine low priority policework. >> how many other detectives ins missing persons? >> i was the only detective in there at the time. >> reporter: both of those
missing persons were attractive women in their 20s, with arrest records for drugs and prostitution.r both had seemingly vanished without a word to friends or relatives. sad but common, especially for these dark streets where drug addiction and prostitution literally go hand in hand. ida went by the book. >> so what i usually do is i go back to see what their arrest history is. their lifestyle has been with drugs. so it's a matter of time before they go back out. so i keep them, do my full boheh background on them. h b u te then a third one comes in. >> a third one. >> a third one. and then as the months go by, wi search more and find that there are, you know, maybe another one here, then another one there, and that sort of thing. >> reporter: soon there were five missing women with eerily similar profiles on ida's list. all of them about the same age,m with a similar look.he all were known to hang out in a section of albuquerque so o notorious that cops call it the war zone. and all but one, a juvenile, had lengthy arrest records for drugs or prostitution. so she did what every good detective does. she started keeping a list of missing women who match that profile.wh that was the easy part. the hard part was that many of them had already been missing for more than a year before ida even had a chance to start looking. it's one of those timing issues we told you about earlier. lengthy delays in reporting missing people as missing. >> it's like being in a race and somebody has a year ahead start. ready, set, go. and i don't have phone records.
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every life is a mystery. not just because of what happens but because of what might have been prevented, missed, or altogether avoided. >> in the whole wide world. >> reporter: such was the mystery of the women on stal detective ida lopez's growing list of the lost. it's a mystery their families th still struggle to understand. >> there's a dad who had a calendar.
every time he saw her he marked the date down. gave her 20 bucks. maybe he knew where the money was going to go. but he saw his daughter. and that didn't take that part away, that she was still somebody's little girl. >> i think they're trick candles. >> reporter: the name, the face, belonged to michelle valdez, one of the first women on ida's list. dan valdez, her father, had reported michelle missing six months before ida got the case.c he was the guy who kept the calendar. >> the xs indicating no -- no knowledge of her, disappeared, nothing.ledi no word. >> reporter: the fact is dan valdez had been recording his
daughter's comings and goings for years. >> this is michelle. >> hi. >> i took it upon myself to tape them, tape every event. every chance that i had i had the videotape there. pe reporter: the michelle valdez that appears in these home videos with her little sisters is a far cry from the thin, drug-wasted young woman police would later come to know and fingerprint. >> daddy, can i have something to eat now? >> reporter: this michelle, along with her sister camille and half sister kendra, was a cut-up and a clown. >> i'm freeding. >> reporter: whether in costume for a school play, dressed up for her first communion, or showing a budding interest in boys. >> oh, yeah. davy. >> reporter: this michelle according to her sister camille was an all-american girl with a future as bright as the new mexico sun. >> i looked up to her for many things. you know, i was always the tag-along with her and her friends.
>> and she didn't mind? >> no.n' not at all. not at all. >> reporter: then came the teen years.me when life started coming at michelle valdez fast and furious. by then dan and michelle's mother were divorced, and dan was raising michelle and camilln alone while working days at the juvenile detention center. and nights and weekends playing steel guitar with his country band, cimarron. dan tried to keep a watchful eye on his girls and even took them to work with him at the juvenile detention center to show them on where careless mistakes can lead. some of it seemed to take. some of it didn't. at 13 michelle became pregnant. >> i was devastated. but what can you do?te you can't be with them 24/7. all you can do is bring them up, nurture them, show them love, attention, appreciation. >> and sometimes they make a a mistake. >> and sometimes they make the i wrong turn or a mistake.ke >> reporter: shortly after her . 14th birthday michelle valdez gave birth to a baby girl she named angelica.
>> so you were being a father all over again. s >> father all over again. >> i was only 8 years old and becoming an aunt, you know. it was tough. but once -- once, you know, we had that bond, me and angelica,e it was nice. i enjoyed it. >> reporter: at 14 most kids rightfully think their best years are ahead of them. high school, college. career. that was not the track michelle valdez was on.ra though dan continued to tape all the usual family functions. michelle's little girl angelica was now the center of attention. but on the periphery in offhand moments dan's camera also caught something else.me the look and the unspoken despair that signaled the death
of a young girl's dreams. she struggled to hold it all together. but michelle eventually dropped out of school.mi for a while she tried to support herself and angelica with a series of minimum wage jobs but couldn't make ends meet. after three years angelica was sent to live with dan's mother, who lived nearby, and michelle took to living with a series of people she called friends. by 2002 the wear and tear is written all over her face. ♪ happy birthday that september angelica celebrated her sixth birthday. michelle had just turned 20. a milestone that was not lost on mother or child. >> mommy's not a grownup anymore -- i mean, a teenager anymore. >> reporter: no. in a sense michelle never was a teenager.
and now on the cusp of young adulthood michelle looked gaunt. her face bore the kind of sores that suggested she'd been hitting the crack pipe.ug >> when did you notice things were going wrong? i'm guessing you noticed before anybody else. >> yeah. i noticed when she started seeing one of her boyfriends, you know. he opened up the door for all the wrong things. >> like?wr >> the drugs. the drugs. definitely. >> reporter: dan knew about the drugs and twice got her to agree to enter rehab.ug but michelle never showed up.nt increasingly there were run-ins with the law.
michelle had already been busted for receiving and transported stolen property, drug possession and car theft. dan knew about some of the arrests.d most he didn't. when a stolen car rap in arizona landed michelle in jail, dan says he bailed her out and pleaded with her to change her ways. >> on the way back from arizona to here she promised, i'm not going to hang out with the same people, i'm going to do things different and you're going to be proud of me again, and then she bails two hours after she's home. tw >> reporter: the toll of michelle's addiction on her t younger sister camille is also evident in dan's videos.il as camille becomes a teenager, she no longer seems to want to acknowledge michelle or even have her around. >> we were always bumping heads. we weren't as close.enec because of the drugs. she'd come over and steal my things or, you know, i would se' how upset it would make my dad. so i would tell her, you know,
mean things. >> reporter: before long michelle valdez stopped showing up in her father's videos. sometimes because she avoided z the camera. other times because she simply didn't show up. >> she knew that there was events at the house because she'd call and ask if she could borrow $25, she was hungry or whatever. she was at -- you know, at a hurting spot. so i gave her the money. >> even though you knew -- >> even though i knew that it could be going for drugs. it was my gateway to making contact with her and seeing her in person. >> reporter: dan may have had
the patience of job. but by 2004 camille, the tag-along little sister, had had enough.on when michelle asked dan if she could move back home for a while, camille put her foot down. >> he was going to let her stay with us. and i remember telling him no. if she comes and stays, i'm going to leave. i couldn't handle it. im i remember that. >> i didn't even -- i didn't even want to be around it anymore. i was so tired of it. tired of seeing him hurt. >> so you told michelle she couldn't come over? >> i told michelle she couldn't come over. i took her to a friend's house and dropped her off there. i know in my heart i didn't do the right thing, but i knew that the common sense of my brain said that i had to. i had to take that avenue. >> reporter: they call it tough love. and every time the phone rang his heart stopped. hoping that hers had not. shocking talk on the streets. but is it true? pi fr no, i can't believe how easy it was to save hundreds of dollars on my car insurance with geico. ♪ i never wanna hear you say... ♪ no, kevin... no, kevin! believe it! geico could save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance.
each x marking another day without word from his oldest daughter, michelle. >> when was the last time you saw her? >> it was in september of 2004. >> how'd she look? >> thin, wired out, strung out maybe. had spots on her face. and looked bad. >> did you see her then? >> honestly, i don't remember the last time i seen her. i don't remember the last words we spoke. >> you don't remember the last
thing you said to her? >> no. >> but it might not have been a nice thing? >> no. >> reporter: but as erratic as michelle had become in recent years, she'd somehow always managed to show up. for the moments that mattered most to her daughter, angelica. that changed when michelle failed to show up for angelica's seventh birthday party. that day it fell to 15-year-old camille to fill in for michelle and act as mom. that christmas angelica opened her presents alone, with no sign of her mother michelle. >> i thought maybe she'd turn up a few days later, a few weeks, or we'd -- you know, she'd call us. >> it was breaking angelica's
heart that day when she wasn't there. >> reporter: in february, five months after michelle was last seen, dan went down to the albuquerque police station and formally reported his daughter missing. detective ida lopez, who would later make it her mission to find michelle and the other missing women, was on medical leave at the time. so in ida's absence the valdez family was at the mercy of the police department's bureaucracy. >> what'd the police tell you? >> she didn't want to be found. >> and i can understand it. a.p. doesn't just deal with missing. they deal with all kinds. >> for a long time the news would be full of stories about girls who were missing and everybody's looking for them.
and one of the things that those girls all had in common was that they were all attractive and blond and white and didn't have any criminal record. and i guess i just kind of wonder whether police and everybody else would have start of stepped up their game a little bit if that had been the case here. >> yeah, that did cross my mind numerous times. but you know, you have to have faith in your law enforcement. if you don't have faith in your law enforcement to treat everybody equal, then what do you have? >> reporter: what you have in dan valdez's case is a search you do yourself. as spring turned to summer that
year, dan, his ex-wife, and his daughters plastered flyers with michelle's picture all over central avenue asking anyone who'd seen her to call the albuquerque police department. at night dan drove through the war zone. sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. looking for michelle. >> it was real hard because you know, i'd be circling the block
or whatever, see somebody that may appear to be the size of michelle, a small person, and go around the block two or three times and me wondering who they were as well as them wondering who i was. >> it had to be brutally difficult to think of michelle living that kind of life. >> definitely. definitely. it was not the way that her mother and i raised her. >> reporter: those were long nights, filled with bittersweet memories of michelle the way she used to be, before the drugs took over. and thoughts of rare moments together before she went missing. >> she came over to the house one day, and i'd given her a few dollars, and she stood up.
she said, well, dad, i'm going to run. i said all right. and she said -- she went up to put her arms around me, and i hugged her. and she said no, dad. squeeze me tight. squeeze me like you've never squeezed me before. a detective named ida lopez. >> i thought ida being a police officer was awfully small. short lady. but other than that it seemed that, you know, that she was on the up and up and that she was doing -- doing what she could, in her power, and the time that she had to go out and -- out to the streets. >> reporter: it would become a close working relationship based on frequent phone calls and mutual admiration. but that's not the -- that's not what he saw in his eyes, or his heart. >> reporter: dan continued to cruise the war zone, willing himself to believe that his daughter was still out there. >> i thought she was alive and well and doing good but just didn't want to have any contact with the family. maybe i did something wrong. maybe it was me not letting her come back to the house. maybe it was camille saying no or whatever. >> we had gotten a call from a family friend of ours that i grew up with, and you know, i pick up the phone and she's like, oh, my gosh, i'm sorry about your sister. and i said, you know, what are you talking about? she said, michelle. michelle's -- michelle and cinnamon were stabbed and buried on the west mesa. >> did you know who cinnamon was?
>> no. no. never heard of her before. >> did you ask her where she heard that? >> yeah. her aunt ran the streets, knew michelle, knew certain people, and they had heard it from her aunt. >> reporter: dan immediately called detective ida lopez with the tip. but she was unable to find the aunt or to pin down the source of the rumor. it was all just unverifiable street talk, the kind ida lopez had heard before. except for one tantalizing tidbit. cinnamon was a name on ida's list. cinnamon elks, missing since august of 2004. but even if those rumors were true and human remains were cooling in the desert night on albuquerque's west mesa, the detective knew, it would take a miracle to find them. was a serial killer stalking the women working the war zone? >> i just always felt that they were going to be together. >> in death as in life? >> if you find one, you're going to find them all. licking, scratching, scooting, and rubbing... may be signs of allergic itch, a medical condition that may require fast-acting, prescription apoquel. apoquel has helped over 6 million itchy dogs get the relief they deserve. apoquel goes right to the source of itch to provide relief in as little as four hours!
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every morning the sunrises over the sandia mountains east of albuquerque and begins baking one of the most celebrated stretches of asphalt in the united states -- historic route 66, the highway famous for carrying dust bowl refugees and beat generation oddballs west to california. the mother road's glory days are behind her now.
in albuquerque, where the old highway becomes central avenue, the city's decidedly down-scaled drug and prostitution trade flourishes. >> there used to be a motel here. i used to live actually behind there when i was in college. and they'd go through the alley, do their tricks in the alley. >> reporter: cops call this section of central avenue the war zone. and the women who work its
shadows prostitutes. but ever since her early days in uniformed patrol, ida lopez has called them her girls. >> i got to know a lot of them. you know, we could chase them out, but for me there was always a story to them. >> reporter: ida says the stories she heard back then were heartbreaking tales of abuse and neglect that almost always had drugs at their core. >> these are hurting women. i mean, you'll see some out here that they need that fix. you know, it's not what you see in vegas.
it's not the call girl. it's not the pretty woman. >> reporter: by the end of 2005 ida had five women on her list who were roughly the same age with similar backgrounds. young hispanic women with arrest records for drugs or prostitution. >> i start going out there and talking to the girls. at first some of them were hesitant. and i said, look, i'm not running you. i just want to know when was the last time you saw her? did you know her? what can you tell me? what's going on out here? >> how much of your time is this taking? >> it's taking all my time. >> reporter: working alone, the detective distributed flyers with the women's pictures at truck stops, convenience stores, even the new mexico state fair. but she kept coming up empty. >> i went to some drug rehab places who were not willing to help me.
i sat in many waiting rooms, and i said, i don't want to know what their sessions were about. all i want to know is a timeline. >> reporter: some of the women had been missing for so long that ida started comparing notes with a detective in the department's cold case unit. eventually, ida and the cold case detective were able to persuade the department to let them form an unofficial task force, where once a month they met with other agencies, including the fbi. to discuss leads on missing persons, on cold cases, on sexual predators, and on unidentified remains. >> so we were able to
communicate with each other anything that came up. any trucker initiatives or murderers that the fbi sent us we posted on the wall. our girls we posted on the wall. >> are truckers a particular problem? >> yeah. they can be. they travel interstate. they pick up a lot of girls. and we know a few that have a
history of murdering the girls who frequent the truck stops. >> so at one point at least you're sort of looking at truckers. >> looking at everybody. >> reporter: by the end of that year ida's list had grown to more than a dozen women. ida knew the odds of finding any of the missing women alive were not good. but that's not what she told the families when they called in, looking to hear something encouraging. >> i would tell them every single day we're one day closer to finding your daughter. yes, i pray that they're okay. hopefully they've been in a commune in some mountainous town or in a rehab center or a jail or with friends that they're actually doing okay. that they're actually doing okay. i'm just a normal person
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but i get to say this is where she's at. >> reporter: the families of the 18 women now on ida's list prayed for happy endings like that one. but most of the women who worked albuquerque's war zone, fellow travelers who might have helped ida find the missing, were too drug addled to provide useful leads. some passed on grisly rumors to ida, that the missing women were dead and had been dumped in the desert west of town.
>> it's like a little dark evil city out here. >> reporter: desiree gonzalez says she used to hang out on these streets and says she knew several of the missing women and had also heard those same rumors. >> i came out here looking for my cousin, and i bumped into cinnamon, and she had told me that -- that the girls were getting their heads cut off and tooken to the mesa. and that was the last time i seen cinnamon. i got scared. you know, it seems like they knew or something. >> reporter: ida didn't completely disbelieve what her girls were telling her. but the mesa, a vast expanse of desert west of town where people frequently dump things they no longer have any use for, was simply too big an area to launch
a search based on just a rumor. and so this case was going nowhere. until late in the afternoon on february 2nd, 2009. >> sit. >> reporter: when christine ross decided to take her dog ruca for a walk. >> okay. >> reporter: they strolled out of her new subdivision, one of many that had recently sprouted up in the desert west of albuquerque, and then over to an abandon construction site, where christine let ruca off the leash to run. >> she ran up ahead of me, and she was messing with something on the ground. and then she left it. we came upon it, and it appeared to be a bone. didn't look like the normal animal bone you find out here. so i took a picture of the bone. i sent it to my sister, who's a nurse. she confirmed that that looked like a femur bone and i should call the authorities. >> reporter: finding a bone, even a human bone, is not unusual out here on albuquerque's west mesa. this is storied territory, where native american tribes, conquistadors, and cowboys once roamed. the bone could easily have belonged to one of them. but the police who arrived at the scene shortly after nightfall soon determined that this was no ancient artifact. this bone belonged to someone who had died in the not too distant past. >> february 2nd is when one of our violent crimes detectives said oh, they found a bone on the mesa, i'll let you know. >> tonight they say the search is far from over. >> i saw it on tv on february 2nd, when christina ross and her dog ruca was reported on the
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>> the hardest part of this whole thing is having to go to somebody's house and say we found her and she's not alive. sunrise would bring news of his daughter michelle. >> police have set up a tip line. >> then in february 2009 came unsettling news. a thigh bone had been found out on albuquerque's west mesa. within days evidence of one body
had become evidence of two. and then three. then four. then five. then six. >> all six sets of remains were found within 20 yards of each other. >> reporter: dan valdez, who'd been wondering for years where his daughter was, saw his most cherished hopes and his most dreaded fears placed on a collision course. >> when they found the second, third, and fourth sets i said to myself i have to realistically look at this, that michelle i'm sure probably is out there. >> reporter: at times detective ida lopez was out there too. along with practically every other member of the albuquerque police department and forensic experts from the fbi. digging, scraping, sifting. >> the reality, it was kind of
like this is not happening. you know, it's stuff you read about. >> reporter: then came seven. eight. nine. ten. 11. it turned out all were women. and all with the same name. jane doe. and ida lopez couldn't help but wonder if these dry bones were the women she'd been looking for. >> you know, i just didn't know. it was so much going through my
mind. >> reporter: over the years ida's list of the lost had grown to include close to two dozen women who fit the same basic profile -- young drug-addicted hispanic women who were known to wander the gritty streets of albuquerque's war zone. for ida walking through this bone yard felt as if she were watching a horror movie unfold in real time. >> you're finding this, and you're just going, i wonder if it's going to be the rest of the girls. and i carried this little flyer in my pocket and in my car, you know, for the last, you know, four years. >> reporter: and within weeks ida's early work of collecting dental records of the missing women and dna samples from their families began to pay off. bones started to get names. >> the only body that has been identified so far, victoria chavez. >> she was on your list. >> she was on my list. >> and you thought, this is it. >> i thought this could be it, yeah. in the grave of jane doe number 8 investigators found a tiny second set of bones. it was a fetus. jane doe number 8 had been four months pregnant at the time of her death. >> they would say we found a skull that had a lot of hair and she's pregnant. i said it's michelle valdez.
but they hadn't made an i.d. yet. >> reporter: michelle valdez. after years of having only her rap sheet and her father's bittersweet memories to go on, ida lopez was now sure she knew where michelle valdez was. >> did you know michelle was pregnant when she disappeared? >> i did. >> reporter: a few days later lab work confirmed ida's hunch. jane doe number 8 was michelle valdez. >> and i had to tell dan. the hardest part of this whole thing is having to go to somebody's house and say we
and the baby. but knew it was reality. i just could feel all the strength in my body just kind of just drain all of a sudden. and i kind of was wobbling a little bit, and ida consoled me a little bit and said it's okay, you know, it's okay. and then she says is there anything that we can do? do you need anything? i said no. 12-year-old daughter, angelica. >> and i said, "angelica." i said, "detective lopez just told us that your mother has been positively i.d.'d as one of the west mesa women victims -- one of the west mesa women." and that's when angelica looked at me and started crying. she said, "no, don't tell me that. you're lying to me. don't lie to me." for ida lopez there was the fear that her nightmare prediction was coming true. >> i just always felt that if you find one you're going to find them all. >> reporter: and for albuquerque's homicide detectives there was the most pressing question of all. who was responsible for turning the west mesa into an unmarked cemetery? protection. and it's safe for puppies. nexgard. what one little chew can do. bill's back needed a afvacation from his vacation. an amusement park... so he stepped on the dr. scholl's kiosk. it recommends our best custom fit orthotic to relieve foot, knee, or lower back pain. so you can move more. dr. scholl's. born to move. -[ scoffs ] if you say so. ♪ -i'm sorry? -what teach here isn't telling you is that snapshot rewards safe drivers with discounts on car insurance.
southwestern summer heat begins to ease hot air balloons rise like spring flowers over albuquerque and the surrounding desert. it's the city's annual balloon fiesta. a money-making spectacle that draws tourists from all over the world to albuquerque for one week in october. it's unlikely that any of the balloonists who float out over the west mesa area spend much time studying the details of the sandy desert floor below. but if one of them had during the 2003 or 2004 festivals, they might have actually seen evidence of a murderer moonlighting as a grave digger.
it turns out that even though that evidence was long gone by the time those bones were discovered in 2009 a bird's eye view was precisely the perspective investigators needed. to start their search for a killer. >> when you see those satellite photos and you see the scarring on the desert floor, knowing what we know now, it's very obvious that those look like graves. >> reporter: this is what albuquerque police chief ray schultz says investigators saw
when they looked at old pictures of the mesa. in this 2002 image of the area where the bones were discovered there's nothing unusual. just desert and sage brush with a dry stream bed running through it. but two years later, in 2004, when most of the women on detective ida lopez's list were disappearing, the images show tire tracks leading from this road to a few bare spots in the vegetation. spots that weren't there before. this photo, taken the following year, shows even more bare spots. clustered within 20 yards of each other. >> it's kind of eerie looking at those satellite photos. >> that really sends a chill up and down your spine. >> reporter: the conclusion was inescapable. albuquerque police were looking at the evolving work of a serial killer.
>> this particular individual made sure that he went back each and every time when he was going to dispose of a body and disposed of it in the same area where the other women were. >> somebody that lives here? >> we don't know if it's somebody that lives here or somebody that would just come back and frequent albuquerque on a regular basis. >> whatever the killer's permanent address, those satellite photos were a huge break because they told police
when he was active here and, most importantly, when he quit. >> there could be somebody up there right now. >> yeah. >> and just depending on where they're at, you wouldn't even see them up there. >> reporter: detective todd babcock and sergeant lou heckroft drew the job of trying to track downtown killer. all they knew was that he'd killed at least 11 women and that the 2005 housing boom that brought suburban sprawl to the west mesa probably forced him to abandon this burial ground and find another one where there would be no neighbors around to watch him work. >> you're up half a mile to 3/4 of a mile from any populated area back in the time frame. >> reporter: a time frame, 2003 to early 2005, and 11 sets of bones. not a lot to go on. but the detectives knew simply finding the bones in the first place had been an incredibly lucky break. >> all the stars aligned.
yeah. >> reporter: oddly enough, the west mesa investigators' good fortune began thousands of miles to the east, in the fall of 2008. that's when crumbling financial markets on wall street caused home construction on the west mesa to grind to a halt. >> the company kind of left town and just kind of left the land the way it was. >> if those houses had been built, they would have been built right on top of that graveyard. >> correct. >> and nobody would be the wiser. >> correct. then august 2008 we have -- we had a really bad rainstorm. >> reporter: and the rain runoff from the deserted construction
site flooded the new neighborhoods that surrounded it. it was when the company returned to the site to fix the runoff problem that they inadvertently brought some bones to the surface, where five months later those bones were discovered by christine ross and her dog ruca. >> you look at how many things had to have happened for these victims to be located. the development at first, the housing downturn, after that the fact the company leaves, a big rainstorm comes, unearths certain things, and now we locate these victims. >> so you get lucky.
they had literally spent weeks in the trenches looking for bones at that abandoned construction site. >> it is a lot of shovel and pick work. it's a lot of sifting and actually in the dirt. >> reporter: two women on ida lopez's list had already been identified among the 11 sets of remains. now between the bulldozers and ida's prayers the department was moving heaven and earth to find out if there were more women from ida's list out there. commander feist knew every scrap of evidence recovered from that gigantic crime scene would have to be cataloged and stored until it came time to prosecute the west mesa grave digger. febreze finds odors trapped in fabrics (bubbles popping) and cleans them away as it dries. use febreze every time you tidy up to keep your whole house smelling fresh air clean. fabric refresher even works for clothes you want to wear another day. make febreze part of your clean routine for whole home freshness. ♪la la la la la. before discovering nexium 24hr to treat her frequent heartburn, marie could only imagine enjoying freshly squeezed orange juice. now no fruit is forbidden. nexium 24hr stops acid before it starts for all-day, all-night protection. can you imagine 24 hours without heartburn? for all-day, all-night protection. how do you keep feeling your best all summer long? start with supporting your gut health. only activia has billions of our live and active probiotics.
valdez had been virtually invisible to everyone in albuquerque. except their families. their customers. and detective ida lopez, who'd had their names on her list of missing women. but for the most part the public didn't even know there was a list. the news media had shown little interest in the story when desperate family members had come to them asking for help. >> they wouldn't even put her picture on the news or nothing. that's all we really wanted, just to flash her picture real quick. >> reporter: of course all that changed once bones started
turning up on the mesa. >> a few years before the first body was found a colleague of mine and i had heard about a list of women that were missing. >> reporter: and as it turns out, jolene gutierrez krueger, a columnist for the "albuquerque journal," had gotten a copy of that list a few years earlier, when she worked the police beat. now that two women from ida's list had been identified, jolene had an idea. >> i said to one of my editors,
you know, maybe we ought to run that list. maybe we ought to, you know, be a little more proactive. and the editor didn't say a whole lot. and i thought, well, i'll write it and we'll see what happens. >> reporter: the resulting column, which for the first time publicly connected the missing women on ida's list with the west mesa bone field, hit the front page one month after the first bone was found. >> the response was amazing.
i think because for the first time we had started to put faces on these women and we had explained to the citizens of albuquerque that there weren't just two women that were missing. there were whole bunches of them. >> reporter: suddenly families who'd once felt isolated in their agony now felt a communal bond. and at the center of it all was dan valdez. >> and i said, well, let's gather these families together and let's get to know them. let's get to be each other's support system. let's exchange phone numbers. >> reporter: an impromptu
memorial came to life alongside the wall that bordered the desert crime scene. and the newly organized families, which included everyone with a daughter on ida's list, began holding monthly vigils to keep public attention focused on finding all of the missing women. by now dan was emerging as the videographer and de facto spokesman for the families. >> we all had a common denominator. our daughters. some of them chummed around with one another.
it was comforting that it didn't just happen to me. >> reporter: six weeks after the digging began out on the west mesa, even more sets of remains were identified. and sure enough, they too were names on ida lopez's list of missing women. >> investigators are looking for connections. any signs that the women knew each other. >> reporter: by now the street alongside the desert crime scene was a media encampment, where reporters were predictably live at 5:00, 6:00, and 10:00. sometimes reporting details that crime scene commander paul feist preferred to keep secret. >> all of the victims buried out on the west mesa were buried naked, with no clothing on. >> it was a problem. we had things that we wanted to keep very secret, or things that we didn't want released. we had them in the air. they had the big telescoping lenses. they were there constantly. and there were certain processes that it did pose a concern. >> reporter: caught between the pressure to keep the public informed and the need to prevent key details from leaking out to cranks and copycats who routinely clogged tip lines, commander feist found himself scheduling sensitive excavation
work in the off hours, when he knew cameras would not be looking over his shoulder. >> i needed to know where they were all the time. that way, again, so if i were doing a different process or if i was looking at something specific, i needed to know that i didn't have the eyes of america in that hole with me. >> reporter: by mid april, after 2 1/2 months of intensive searching, mapping, and aerial photography, commander feist finally felt confident that his team had found all the bones there were to find and began shutting down the west mesa crime scene. >> well, just a few minutes ago albuquerque police left the dig site after they say they'd met all of the goals that they set. >> reporter: the total body count stayed at 11 sets of adult remains and one fetus. but for ida lopez the discovery and identification of seven women from her list meant that years of careful detective work were finally paying off. and she wanted to be able to provide them with some answers. >> reporter: in addition to victoria chavez and michelle valdez, the others from ida's list were cinnamon elks, julie nieto, veronica romero, monica candelaria, and doreen marquez. >> a lot of people said they were drug addicts and prostitutes. well, if they were, so be it. i didn't choose their lifestyle. but you know what? the first thing is they were human beings to begin with. >> reporter: commander feist, who tried to keep the local press at arm's length during the excavation, finally allowed them to cross under the yellow tape and onto crime scene, along with crews from "america's most wanted." >> the tv show "america's most wanted" was also at the crime scene today filming for next weekend's episode on the west mesa mystery. serial killer to catch but also because one set of remains was about to upset everything
after months of digging for bones in the desert west of albuquerque, detectives desperately wanted to get on with the work of catching a killer. so far all the remains identified had been names on ida lopez's list of missing women. and all had worked as prostitutes on the mean streets of the city's war zone. for police that seemed like a good place to start their search for the killer. >> we're looking for people who've had histories of showing
violence against prostitutes. >> and that's more than just a few guys. >> it's more than just a few. >> reporter: it had to be someone local, investigators assumed. a meticulous man whose grim will had brought him back to the mesa again and again to bury his victims. everything was in a pretty contained area. all the bones. all the remains. >> yes. >> because this guy had complete
sets of remains, jane doe number 7, was a young black female. >> when they told us that they had a young black girl, i thought, i didn't have a young black girl on my list. >> reporter: for medical investigator wendy honeyfield the bones of jane doe number 7 and her pink-tipped acrylic nails were a beguiling puzzle. >> she's like a lot of other cases that we had skeletal remains that come in. and there's so much work that's always done behind the scenes to get them identified. that nobody really ever sees. >> reporter: for the detectives who were trying to catch a serial killer those remains represented a wild card with staggering implications. what if the west mesa grave digger was a prolific transient? what if jane doe number 7 was just the first of many victims the grave digger brought to the
west mesa from somewhere else? >> who was she? where did she come from? how did she get to albuquerque? not all those questions have been answered as of yet. >> reporter: it would take more than diligent detective work to find those answers. but within a few months of receiving those remains the lab-coated sleuths at the office of the medical investigator began unraveling the riddle of jane doe number 7. >> since her skull was pretty much intact, one of our senior investigators who is able to do forensic sketching started doing a profile for her. >> reporter: based on photographs of the skull and a partial hair weave that was recovered from her grave, the sketch artist imagined that jane doe number 7 must have looked something like this. >> he was able to define out her ears. that the chin was specific for me. her nose and her eyes were very important. >> reporter: jane doe's number 7 nose had been broken sometime before she died. so that was represented in the sketch. and because her wisdom teeth had not fully developed, wendy knew this jane doe was probably only 14 or 15 years old when she
died. >> i started looking into the missing and exploited children's website and was able to search through as many african-american females that matched the possible stature, where they might have been when they went missing. >> reporter: from a pool of hundreds wendy first narrowed the field to 30, then to 10, and then to 1. one girl whose face, age, and biography seemed to match what she saw in the sketch. her name was syllania edwards. according to the website, she'd been a 13-year-old runaway from a group home in lawton, oklahoma in 2003. and that's what we're trying to figure out. >> possibly the killer? >> don't know. i have no idea how she got here. >> reporter: so detectives started checking with police departments and jails throughout the southwest on the hunch that syllania, as young as she was, might have been entangled in a
prostitution circuit that shuttles women from city to city. >> what we see very often is the women involved in prostitution work in what's called the circuit. so they'll move from albuquerque to phoenix to las vegas to los angeles and maybe not return on that circuit for several years. >> reporter: it was in denver, another city on the circuit, that detective todd babcock hit paydirt. >> at one point syllania had been arrested up in the denver area for prostitution, going by a different name at the time. had been booked. they were able to get me a booking photograph of what syllania looked like around the time that she died, we believe. >> reporter: syllania edwards was released from that denver-area jail in july 2004, the same year almost all the other west mesa women had gone missing. the next time anyone heard anything about syllania, she was here in this makeshift grave site outside albuquerque, sharing it with ten other women she never knew in life but will be forever linked with in death. >> the biggest thing that makes syllania different is she's not a local girl. all of her other victims were local. they had ties to albuquerque. >> she was last seen in denver. >> last known police positive contact was in denver. >> suggesting possibly that the killer met her in denver, brought her here? >> i don't believe so.
>> you think she came here on her own? >> it's -- i know she had been to albuquerque at least one prior time. to her ending up out here. possibly two prior times. >> reporter: nine months after the discovery of the first bone on the west mesa the detectives were back to square one. the odds were good that syllania edwards, like the others, had simply strolled out into the war zone and climbed into the wrong car. but her presence in the west mesa bone yard raised a troubling prospect. >> there are other girls from out of state in the same -- you know, are we going to find another repeat? we don't know. >> reporter: now investigators feared the serial killer they were hunting may have buried other bodies elsewhere in the vast desert west of town. >> it's desert. there could be very realistically a lot of bodies. >> this in a way suggests that maybe there are women out there who aren't on any list. >> that's a possibility. could be others. there could be others. >> a suspect caught in the act. >> we approached the vehicle, opened the door. the first words out of this girl's mouth was that he was trying to kill her. from the moment the west mesa murder case landed in their laps, detectives knew they would be chasing a phantom and grasping at smoke. the killer, whoever he was, and police naturally assumed the killer was male, had a five-year head start. >> do you think we're dealing with one guy here? let's see, aleve is proven better on pain
grasping at smoke. the killer, whoever he was, and police naturally assumed the killer was male, had a five-year head start. >> do you think we're dealing with one guy here? >> yeah, i think there's no doubt that you're dealing with one guy. >> yeah, because based on our experience with crimes of this nature, homicide crimes, when you have multiple offenders, more than one of them, someone's going to talk. >> reporter: this killer had seemingly left nothing behind but a pile of dry bones. and a few hold hazy satellite images of tire tracks on the desert sand. >> we believe that's him. and it's almost frustrating because you look at this picture
and you see the disturbed earth which later we learned are grave sites, and you see the tire tracks. but can't get your hands on anything else. >> reporter: no witnesses. no fingerprints. no dna. >> we went back starting in 2002, and we got the records from our local jail. anybody that was arrested for prostitution, criminal solicitation, anything like
that. and we got a list of names. >> reporter: but what kind of man is capable of killing is disposing of 11 women without somebody noticing something. >> fbi's behavioral sciences agents came in, took a look at our crime scene, took a look at what evidence we had. they came up with their profile of who they thought we were looking for, including that profile was a white male. >> 35 to 50?
>> your typical profile. >> lives alone or is away from home for extended periods of time. probably had some brush with law enforcement. probably familiar with the prostitution trade. >> yes. >> i'm still right down the middle of the fairway on this, right? >> yes. >> and that's still a lot of people. >> it's a lot of people. and do you use that profile and rule somebody out just because they're not on that profile?
>> you can't. >> no, you can't. >> no. >> reporter: the detectives needed a solid tip. and by the summer of 2009 the fbi and the city of albuquerque were offering $100,000 to anyone who could help them catch and convict the man responsible for killing the west mesa women. for the detective who'd long maintained that everybody counts, the existence of that kind of reward was a sign of progress. >> you're asked to call 1-877- -- >> though the police tip line with hundreds of calls from a trail mix of nuts, kooks and the merely misguided -- >> detective babcock. >> reporter: -- no one who seemed to know something about the five-year missing persons cases was dialing the phone. >> there were numerous rumors out there that certain individuals had killed several of them, and then one in particular had been killed by drug dealers. >> were all the victims killed the same way? >> we believe so. >> can you tell me what that is? >> no. >> homicidal violence. >> you can't say gun, knife, strangulation.
you're keeping that quiet because you don't want somebody to confess to this who didn't do it. >> that's correct. that's why we're staying with homicidal violence. >> okay. >> reporter: homicidal violence. there was no shortage of names on the police list of potential suspects who were capable of that. but one name stood out. a name and face detective babcock knew quite well from an encounter in 1999, when babcock was working the vice unit in albuquerque. >> the vice unit was watching a particular prostitute. see a vehicle pick this girl up.
drive to a remote location. we approached the vehicle, open the door, the first words out of this girl's mouth, who's a known prostitute, was that he was trying to kill her. >> and the man in the car was? >> lorenzo montoya. >> reporter: lorenzo montoya, a short, powerfully built man in his 30s who was known to have an
equally short temper and a taste for prostitutes. babcock says he saw marks on the woman's throat and that she told him montoya looked like he was enjoying it. >> did you believe her story? >> yes. >> so lorenzo was arrested for charges beyond just patronizing a prostitute. >> yes, he was. >> reporter: that felony assault charge against lorenzo montoya went nowhere because the victim later refused to testify. but it was what had happened next that really focused the detectives' attention. in 2006, years after being caught in the act of choking one prostitute, lorenzo montoya was caught in the company of a dead one. >> on the surface seems like a pretty good suspect. >> yeah. but we don't know if it's him or not. >> reporter: according to police, montoya lured the woman to his home near the west mesa burial ground. he killed her, wrapped her body
in a blanket, and was preparing to dump her in the trunk of his car when the woman's boyfriend showed up. >> we would just love to have the opportunity to interview him and treat him just like any of the other individuals we're looking at in this case. >> reporter: but that unfortunately will never happen. the boyfriend shot and killed lorenzo montoya on the spot. it was a bit of frontier justice for montoya, who was about to literally get away with murder. but years later his death would be just as tough a break for detectives investigating the bodies found on the west mesa. >> there's nothing to connect lorenzo montoya to those 11 bodies? long. i mean he's a wreck without me. advantage ii, fight the misery of biting fleas. how do you keep feeling your best all summer long? start with supporting your gut health. only activia has billions of our live and active probiotics. so, let's make this the summer of loving your gut. activia. love for your gut. -keith used to be great to road-trip with. but since he bought his house... are you going 45? -uh, yes. 55 is a suggestion. -...it's kind of like driving with his dad. -what a sign, huh? terry, can you take a selfie of me? -take a selfie of you? -yeah. can you make it look like i'm holding it? -he did show us how to bundle home and auto at progressive.com and save a bunch of money. -oh, a plaque.
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in late january 2010, nearly a year after the first bones were discovered on albuquerque's west mesa, the last set of remains was matched to another name on ida's list. >> university of north texas identified jamie barela through dna. >> reporter: although 15-year-old jamie barela was not a prostitute, she was last seen with one, her cousin evelyn salazar, whose remains were also found on the mesa. there were still seven missing women who fit the profile on ida lopez's list. and if they weren't on the mesa, where were they? with the investigation now focused on finding a serial killer, ida thought back to her late-night chats with the women of the war zone. >> when you ask them how many bad dates have you had?
oh, i've had 17. i've been choked. i've been beat. i've been -- you know, i've been raped a number of times. so you get a lot of that. and then i'm thinking, okay, is it somebody that's nice at picking them up? >> reporter: investigators had plenty of leads but none that had gotten them closer to answering two questions -- who was he? and where was he now? to find out commander mike geyer, head of the albuquerque p.d.'s criminal investigations unit, says the department chased leads all over the country, from texas, where a woman with profile similar to those of the west mesa women-v also gone missing. to states as far away as pennsylvania and florida, where the backgrounds and travel patterns of certain types of men seem to warrant close attention. >> there's probably people that
were in albuquerque during the time frame we're looking at and now through investigative leads or other sources we find something that tells us a little bit more about their lifestyle as well, which would give us again that kind of immediate gut reaction, it's got to be. it's got to be that person. >> reporter: it was that kind of gut reaction that led detectives to joplin, missouri in august of 2010. >> investigators are extremely tight-lipped at this point, but we do know that this is in connection to the west mesa murders in albuquerque, new mexico. >> reporter: the target of the search warrant was a local joplin, missouri photographer who had allegedly been in albuquerque to take pictures during the city's 2004 balloon fiesta. but police think it wasn't just the balloons he was
photographing. remember, 2004 is when almost all of the women found on the west mesa disappeared. >> he's in the area where the prostitutes frequent. he's a photographer. so he's going to have close contact with these people. whatever else draws that connection to him. we have to look into it. >> reporter: it was intended to be a low-key search of the man's home and offices. but it didn't turn out that way. >> it gathered a lot of attention because we had to utilize the fbi. we had to utilize the joplin police department. and one of the locations that was searched was right next door to a newspaper. if that same individual was here in albuquerque, the media wouldn't even have known about
him. >> fbi agents also searched this home. >> was the man whose house you served a search warrant on, is he a suspect? >> no. i wouldn't say he's a suspect. he's just an individual that came to our attention that we had to follow through. >> so this guy takes photographs of the part of town that you're sort of looking at. is that what we're looking at here, is you're interested in seeing what photos this man took and whether he found anything in them? >> we really can't say why. >> reporter: though the detectives spent months combing through all the evidence taken from the photographer's office and home, nothing definitive was found. and most of these boxes were returned. now, more than five years after the discovery of bones on the west mesa, albuquerque police are certain of only one thing. if the serial killer who preyed on their city is still alive, he's probably moved on to another hunting ground. >> my personal opinion, i believe that that person is still out there. >> he may be waiting in some other community to start doing the same thing again. >> and if he is, it may only be a matter of time.
it's been nine years since that summer night when ida lopez first took to the streets of albuquerque's war zone alone, searching for a couple of missing women. though she's not on the street as much these days, she is still busy working missing persons cases. >> the majority of our girls were street-level prostitutes. >> reporter: in that time the case has gone from a nightmare for a few flawed souls to a nationwide search for a serial killer, an unidentified man who police believe may not have succeeded in killing every woman he coaxed into his car. >> he may be waiting in some other community to start doing the same thing again. and what we hope to happen is that someone that's had an encounter with this killer will
make that phone call to us and we can link that individual to these crimes that have occurred here in albuquerque. >> if these women had been blond, white, and from the right part of town would you guys have sounded the alarm sooner? >> several of these victims were missing for months before anyone reported them missing. also, again, it goes back to the lifestyle. women very often involved in prostitution, it's not uncommon for them to go missing for weeks or months at a time. >> reporter: that was true then,
and it's true today. out in the war zone there's a new crop of ragged women on the streets, willing to sell themselves in return for a puff of smoke from a glass pipe. >> i want to talk to you. >> reporter: most of the new girls either never knew or barely remember the women whose places they've taken. >> and whatever you tell us, it's no judgment at all. okay? >> reporter: but some do. and in spite of their example, they can't quit the life. >> did you notice when the girls were going missing? >> reporter: though police say they have a half dozen suspects on their radar at any given time, so far they haven't been able to eliminate or arrest any of them. >> it's a cold case. so you have to recreate and you have to kind of go back in the time machine, so to speak, to that era or that time in these people's lives. memories fade, and witnesses disappear, and some just don't
want to be part of it anymore. >> reporter: many who lost friends and relatives to the west mesa grave digger are convinced there could still be someone somewhere who knows something. because, they suppose, all those earlier rumors about the women being abducted, killed, and dumped in the desert had to have started somewhere. was it all hot air, or did someone with knowledge of the murders mix a kernel of truth into those rumors? >> we're not the only family that got a call saying that their, you know, sister, daughter was murdered and buried out there. >> somebody was trying to send a message at some point. >> could never trace it back. it led them to a dead end. >> reporter: though both dan and camille valdez believe michelle's killer is still alive, dan prefers these days to dwell on the things he knows for sure. >> i love you, michelle. i miss you, hon. >> reporter: that he once had a daughter named michelle who was the light of his life. that once she was lost and that now she's found. >> and we will see justice
served. i love you, hon. >> i know 100% that my daughter is not alive. i know and i'm comfortable with the fact that they identified her as my daughter. i am comfortable with the fact that we gave her a proper burial as a human being should be buried. and i'm happy and satisfied with that. >> reporter: ida lopez began this case with the mantra that everybody counts.
it took years. but in the end ida was able to make everybody care. to this day faded photos of women on her list hang on her wall, alongside a line of scripture that reads, "nothing is hidden, except to be revealed." it's a quote familiar to detectives everywhere. >> and what information do you have? >> reporter: and it's not just there for inspiration. for ida lopez that's a mission statement. >> i have to keep believing that we'll find an answer soon. soon could be months. soon could be years. but i just have to keep believing that today could be the day, today could be the day. >> what about those last seven girls? do you think you'll ever find them? >> i think we will. >> reporter: one of those women, safira mora, was found alive and well a few weeks after this story first aired in december 2010.
right now the killer, if he's still alive, has plenty of it. and this desert doesn't give up its secrets easily. i'm craig melvin. >> and i'm natalie morales. >> and this is "dateline." >> she was a college student found on a lonely road in texas. >> we figured she had been sexually assaulted and dumped here. >> tough questions for her boyfriend. >> where was i the night before? what had i been doing? when had i last seen her? >> i really thought he could be her killer. >> but while police try to prove it, another attack. >> he's got me by the throat and he's shaking me and yelling at me telling me not to say a word. >> you're a prisoner in this apartment now. >> yes. >> a college campus gripped by fear. a growing list of suspects.