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New Mexico ceremony marks ‘horrible’ discovery of bodies

The notes are written on paper tags, tributes to the nine women, two teenage girls and unborn child found buried 10 years ago atop a New Mexico mesa.

One bears a stick-figure angel and a message from a woman who says the victims watch over her. Another expresses hope that authorities will find the killer.

The authors, advocates say, are women who spend their days in the district with a history of drugs and sex trafficking that many of the victims were known to frequent.

The bodies were discovered a decade ago this weekend, kicking off an investigation into the largest crime scene in Albuquerque’s history. The cases remain unsolved.

All but one of the victims had fallen into prostitution and struggled with drug abuse, according to police.

“It’s really a sad and horrible anniversary,” said Christine Barber, executive director of Street Safe New Mexico, a nonprofit that seeks to boost safety for women who live and work on Albuquerque streets. “Here is that mark of 10 years. Looking back, what has changed for women on the streets?”

Her organization recently gathered the notes from the women it meets with weekly, and volunteers tied them to fencing near the former crime scene Saturday to mark the anniversary.

Known as the West Mesa killings, the victims’ deaths have resulted in no arrests, despite the massive homicide investigation police launched after discovering the makeshift graves.

Police say a woman walking her dog reported finding what appeared to be a femur on the mesa. That discovery of a single bone led to a months-long dig, as police used DNA and dental records to identify the women and girls.

Many of the victims’ families reported them missing years earlier. Ida Lopez, an Albuquerque police detective, also noticed sex workers vanishing. She compiled a list of the missing – not all of whom have been found, raising concern there might be more victims.

For homicide investigators, the case posed challenges from the start, said Dirk Gibson, a communications and journalism professor at the University of New Mexico who has authored numerous books on serial killings. Years had passed from the time the women and girls disappeared, likely limiting available evidence.

“You can’t have a colder cold case,” Gibson said. “In this case, there was almost nothing but bones.”

Gilbert Gallegos, an Albuquerque police spokesman, said detectives receive hundreds of tips in the case each year, and they continue to follow different leads while retesting evidence as DNA and other investigative technology advances.

Police haven’t ruled out that there might be more victims, and detectives still have multiple suspects, Gallegos said.

Since 2009, families of some victims have stressed publicly that the women and girls were loved. Several women had children now being raised by relatives.

“They didn’t deserve what they got. It’s awful what happened to them,” Myra Salazar, the mother of 27-year-old victim Evelyn Salazar, said in a statement. “They all had families that care for them.”

She released her statement through Young Women United, a nonprofit where she helps with programs geared toward assisting women in need.

Evelyn Salazar disappeared in the spring of 2004 with her 15-year-old cousin Jamie Barela after police said they went to a park together.

Barela is the only victim who police say wasn’t known to have been subjected to sex trafficking.

Syllania Edwards, also 15, was the only one not from New Mexico. She was from Lawton, Oklahoma, and was reportedly last seen in Denver, police said.

The victims were remembered Saturday at a brief memorial service organized by Street Safe New Mexico next to a place where city officials in June broke ground on a memorial park. For now, the hand-written tributes to the victims hang from the fencing that lines the park.

Barber said the organization hoped the notes written by women who today live on the margins in Albuquerque will highlight the continued struggles for some of the city’s most vulnerable.

Street Safe was founded in 2009, aiming to ensure volunteers kept a steady presence in an area along Historic Route 66 while handing out clothing and other products each Friday. That way if women started disappearing again, there might be more advocates who notice and help in raising concerns, Barber said.

“You have to know people, their names and what they look like to know people are missing,” she said.

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