The West Mesa Murders: A Central American Connection?

Editor’s Note:

Now dragging on for more than 7 years, the investigation of Albuquerque’s West Mesa Murders is inconclusive. The 2009 discovery of 11 murdered women and girls, one of whom was pregnant at the time of her killing, unnerved a city and attracted gobs of media attention that later faded with the passage of time. In today’s story, El Paso journalist and author Diana Washington Valdez reports on a possible lead that could shed light on what some call New Mexico’s Crime of the Century. Readers are encouraged to go to the link at the bottom of the story for the original posting, which contains graphics, as well as other stories by Washington Valdez.

FNS Special Feature
The West Mesa Murders: A Central American Connection?

By Diana Washington Valdez
Copyright © 2016 The Digie Zone

EL PASO, TEXAS – A truck driver who used to belong to El Salvador’s military special forces allegedly could be linked to serial crimes of girls and women in El Paso, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, according to a Crime Stoppers tip included in court documents related to the appeal of Texas death row inmate David Leonard Wood.
The tip, which is part of the Crime Stoppers report, refers to Wood’s case and to the West Mesa murders of Albuquerque.

The report states that the victim or victims of the alleged suspect, whose last name in the Crime Stoppers report is Cota, were nicknamed “Mimi” and “Chocolate.”New Mexico authorities had identified one of the 11 victims that were found in shallow graves in Albuquerque’s West Mesa in 2009 as Syllannia Edwards, whom police stated may have used the nicknames “Mimi” and “Chocolate.”

The West Mesa case remains unsolved.
Edwards, who was 15 years old, was reported missing in 2003 in Lawton, Oklahoma. Police there said they considered her an endangered runaway. Police said she was also seen in Aurora, Colorado in May of 2004, and may have associated with prostitutes in that city. It is not known when and how Edwards traveled to Albuquerque.

“Edwards) was killed sometime between 2004 and 2005 and then buried in a mesa located adjacent to 118th Street SW in Albuquerque,” police authorities stated. “(The Cota) suspect would lure the females with narcotics,” the tipster told Crime Stoppers.

An anonymous caller provided the tip on Feb. 22, 2010 to Crime Stoppers of El Paso, Inc. According to court records, El Paso Detective Arturo “Tury” Ruiz, who was assigned to follow up on the tip, went as far as to prepare a grand jury document so that he could request more details about the tipster’s information.

Apparently, from what can be gleaned from court documents, the detective’s grand jury request either fell through the cracks of the multiple appeals filed by Wood’s lawyer, Gregory Wiercioch, or was deemed unimportant by Texas authorities.Wood’s defense alleged in court records that the Texas Attorney General’s Office may have held back potentially exculpatory evidence by not disclosing the Crime Stoppers information to Wood earlier.

Kayleigh Lovvorn, spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General’s Office in Austin, said state officials are restricted on how they can respond in pending cases. “State of Texas v. David Leonard Wood” is currently pending litigation. Per Office of the Attorney General policy, we cannot comment on this case at the time,” Lovvorn stated.

An official with the Albuquerque Police Department confirmed today (Sept. 13, 2016) that the El Paso Police Department had shared the 2010 Crime Stoppers report with authorities investigating the West Mesa murders.
No further comment was available due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.

According to the Crime Stoppers report, “The caller (tipster) advised they have information regarding the crimes for which a man named David Leonard Wood will be executed soon. The caller advised (that) the suspect [Cota]… is responsible for these crimes.”

“The caller advised two of the victims’ nicknames were Mimi and Chocolate,” the Crime Stoppers report stated. “The caller advised the suspect never admitted to killing the women, but did admit to having picked up the women and paid them in exchange for sex.” “The caller has reason to believe the suspect … is responsible for the West Mesa, NM murders as well … (and) may also be responsible for several murders in Milwaukee, WI,” the Crime Stoppers report stated.
The tipster claimed that the suspect had been a member of El Salvador’s military special forces. The tipster further alleged that the suspect is “very violent” and “exhibits a very strong hate towards women.”

The tipster told Crime Stoppers that Cota allegedly once boasted that “You will see me all over the news one day.” The suspect, the tipster alleged, used to be involved in drug-trafficking, and had a relative that was arrested on drug charges in California. The tipster alleged that the suspect ‘s nickname was “El Tigere,” was between 55 and 56 years old (in 2010), had a thin build, reddish hair, and drove a light burgundy-colored van.

The suspect reportedly worked as an interstate 18-wheel truck driver, and had lived in Albuquerque and West Oakland, California. Police said the West Mesa victims had disappeared between 2003 and 2004. They were Jamie Barela, Monica Candelaria, Victoria Chavez, Virginia Cloven, Syllannia Edwards, Cinnamon Elks, Doreen Marquez, Julie Nieto, Veronica Romero, Evelyn Salazar, and Michelle Valdez, who was pregnant.

The bodies were unearthed after a couple and their dog came upon human bones while walking in the West Mesa. Seven years ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced its Highway Serial Killings Initiative, which focuses on murders that could be tied to long-haul truck drivers.

FBI officials said this came about after a law enforcement analyst in Oklahoma found that “the bodies of murdered women were being dumped along the Interstate 40 (I-40) corridor in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi.”
FBI officials said in 2009 that the cases posed several serious challenges.

“The victims in these cases are primarily women who are living high-risk, transient lifestyles, often involving substance abuse and prostitution,” FBI officials stated. “They’re frequently picked up at truck stops or service stations and sexually assaulted, murdered and dumped along a highway.”

“The suspects are predominantly long-haul truck drivers. But the mobile nature of the offenders, the unsafe lifestyles of the victims, the significant distances and multiple jurisdiction involved, and the scarcity of witnesses or forensic evidence can make these cases tough to solve,” the FBI stated. FBI officials said the initiative, which involves collaboration with local law enforcement, has led to arrests in some of the cases they investigated.

Wood was convicted in the deaths of six girls and young women who disappeared in 1987 in El Paso. Their bodies were found in shallow graves near what is now the Painted Dunes Golf Course in Northeast El Paso.
The victims were Ivy Susanna Williams, Desiree Wheatley, Karen Baker, Angelica Frausto, Rosa Maria Casio and Dawn Marie Smith.

Three others who went missing in 1987, two from Northeast El Paso, and one who lived in nearby Chaparral, New Mexico, were Melissa Alaniz, Cheryl Vasquez and Marjorie Knox; they were never seen alive again. El Paso police said they had suspected Wood in their disappearances.

Wood has steadfastly denied killing the six victims and denied any connection with the disappearances of Knox, Alaniz and Vasquez. After his conviction by a jury trial, Wood was sentenced to death, and was scheduled to be executed in 2009. The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals granted him a stay the day before he was to be executed so he could prepare his appeal. The Wood defense, which sought to prove that Wood was mentally retarded and therefore should not be executed, lost that appeal. Wood’s defense appealed further, arguing different grounds; those proceedings are pending.

For the original posting:

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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