West Mesa murders

By: Ren King and Violet Hirman

*Warning: This article contains information about sexual violence

The best murderers are the ones who have never been caught. Close seconds are the cases where nobody even realizes there’s been a murder.

February 2, 2009, Christine Ross took her dog Ruca on a walk on Albuquerque, New Mexico’s west side. Ruca discovered a bone sticking out of the dirt and brought it to Ross. Ross’s sister was a nurse, and confirmed it appeared to be a human femur bone. Police were called to the sight where they dug up grave after grave after grave.

In total, the skeletons from eleven bodies, and one unborn baby, were discovered, buried in makeshift graves all evenly spaced apart. They were all women, and all but one of them had ties to drugs and prostitution.

Investigators then made another chilling realization: the majority of the victims had previously been reported missing between the years 2003 and 2005.

The first to be identified was 15-year-old Syllannia Edwards in November of 2009, having been reported missing since 2003. She had last been seen in May of 2004, in the company of three other women, believed to be using the nicknames Mimi or Chocolate.

A few days later, Virginia Cloven and Evelyn Salazar were identified, gone missing in 2004.

Two months later, Salazar’s cousin, 15-year-old Jamie Barela was found, with both Barela and her cousin last seen at a family gathering in April of 2004. The two had been heading to a park in southeast Albuquerque when they disappeared. Barela was also the last victim to be dug up.

The other victims were 22-year-old Monica Candelaria, killed between 2003 and 2005. 26-year-old Victoria Chavez killed in 2005. 32-year-old Cinnamon Elks killed sometime between 2004 and 2005. 24-year-old Doreen Marquez between 2003 and 2005. 24-year-old Julie Nieto killed sometime between the same years. 28-year-old Veronica Romero between 2004 and 2005. And finally, 22-year-old Michelle Valdez between the latter years. Romero had been pregnant at the time, and the skeletal remains of her unborn child were also discovered with her.

Aerial photographs of the crime sight were discovered, and revealed off-road tire tracks in the West Mesa desert. With knowledge of grave locations, there are two identifiable graves at the time of the photo.

Right off the bat, and only seven days after Ross had discovered the bone, April Gillen, the first wife of Joseph Blea called the police saying they should look into him. Blea already faced sex-related charges and was currently serving a 90 year sentence in prison for four sexual assaults unrelated to the West Mesa Murders. His DNA was discovered on a dead prostitute in 1985, although he has never been charged in connection to that specific crime. He had more than 130 run-ins between 1990 and 2009 relating to prostitution and drugs in an area that several of the victims frequently traveled.

He had previously been reported exposing himself to women walking on Central Avenue, and investigators found rope and electrical tape in his car. More disturbingly, during the weeks following the discovery of the remains, Blea was noticed to be seemingly stalking prostitutes on the move. One woman was interviewed admitting that Blea had taken her to his house and tied her up against her will.

More and more evidence was being stacked up against Blea when his former cell-mate said he talked about the West Mesa Murders, and even said he knew the victims. He had paid them for sex acts and struck one of them when she tried to take his money.

Jewelry and women’s underwear were discovered by Blea’s daughter as well as his wife, Cheryl Blea, around the house and in their shed. One of the victim’s fathers claimed some of his daughter’s jewelry had gone missing. Due to the case still being open, forensic scientists will not release information regarding whether or not DNA on the jewelry matched that of any of the victims.

Blea’s former attorney, John McCall, claims Blea had nothing to do with the murders.

The case is still ongoing, and investigators don’t have any other leads (although they do have other suspects) to put to the test. A $100,000 reward is in place for any information leading to the conviction and incarceration of the perpetrator.. The question is: Are there other bodies yet to be discovered? And if Blea really isn’t the killer, where are they now?

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