REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
It's been over a year and a half since the skeletal remains of 11 women were discovered buried in shallow graves on a Mesa in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As Elaine Baumgartel from member station KUNM reports, some of the victim's families say police and the media haven't paid enough attention to the murders.
ELAINE BAUMGARTEL: A local protest band called The Raging Grannies headlined a demonstration on a recent Saturday morning in front of police headquarters in downtown Albuquerque.
THE RAGING GRANNIES: (Singing) Women were killed and buried in the ground...
BAUMGARTEL: Brightly colored women's dresses tied to pink crosses fluttered above the 80 or so people who showed up. Demonstrators called for police to step up their investigation into who killed nearly a dozen women in this southwestern city.
Ms. DONNA ROW: And what pisses me off the most is apathy.
BAUMGARTEL: Donna Row is the director of a local youth advocacy organization.
Ms. ROW: Apathy is killing us. It is killing the people we love, the people I've worked with.
BAUMGARTEL: To understand this story, we have to go back a few years. In the summer of 2007, Maggie Shepard was a crime reporter for the city's now-defunct afternoon paper, the Albuquerque Tribune. She went on a ride-along with the police vice unit and discovered officers had a list of 16 women. They had all been arrested for prostitution and they were all missing. Shepard was astounded.
Ms. MAGGIE SHEPARD (Former Crime Reporter, Albuquerque Tribune): There's a list of people who are missing and I've never heard about this? And what's going on?
BAUMGARTEL: Shepard says she didn't get the feeling the police were thinking serial killer. And, she says, there wasn't a sense of urgency or concern from the department.
Ms. SHEPARD: They weren't trying to make it seem like anything other than it was a list of missing prostitutes.
BAUMGARTEL: Shepard's story ran on the front page of the Tribune, along with photos of the 16 missing women. Few other local media outlets picked up the story and nothing happened. Then, two years later, in February 2009, a woman walking on the Mesa with her dog found a bone that looked human. Police soon announced the discovery of what some here have called the largest crime scene in the city's history.
Unidentified Woman (Reporter): The body count is now up to 10. A short time ago, the Albuquerque police chief announced three more bodies were recovered on the west mesa.
BAUMGARTEL: In all, the skeletons of 11 women and one fetus were found buried in shallow graves on a high mesa west of town. The area had been graded for a housing development and it took a year to identify all the comingled remains. Nine of the victims were on that list of missing women who'd been arrested for prostitution, and police say they believe the same person or persons are responsible for the murders. But investigators found no evidence to indicate how the women were killed.
Ms. JAYNE PEREA: I still remember what my daughter was wearing.
BAUMGARTEL: Jayne Perea's 15-year-old daughter Jamie Perea was not involved in prostitution and her name wasn't on the list, but her remains were among those found on the mesa.
Ms. PEREA: She was wearing blue jeans with a t-shirt and high-top shoes. She was going out that night and her curling iron was on. And she told me, I'll be back, mom, later. And she never came back. And do you know how hard that is on a mother to never see your daughter again?
BAUMGARTEL: Perea filed a missing persons report when Jamie disappeared, but she doesn't think that report or those of the other victims received enough attention.
Ms. PEREA: That's what really gets to me is nobody done nothing for these girls at the time. Maybe if somebody was really out there, our girls wouldn't be missing right now.
BAUMGARTEL: This case has raised controversy here about whether the missing women were too easily forgotten. Most of the women had histories of drug addiction and prostitution. Advocates and relatives criticized the media for focusing on their personal histories instead of on the murders themselves. They also criticized the police, who they say did little to investigate the women's disappearances until after their bodies were found.
And the case has forced some serious soul searching in this community. Sander Rue is a Republican state senator. He sponsored legislation that will now require that officers be trained on missing persons policies. But Rue says there's more to it than just police procedures.
State Senator SANDER RUE (Republican, New Mexico): And I think that we all need to kind of step back and ask ourselves some questions, you know, individually and as communities. You know, how did we respond to this? It just raises some interesting questions, I think, that we all have to look at.
BAUMGARTEL: Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz defends his department's work on the case and says the investigation is ongoing.
Mr. RAY SCHULTZ (Police Chief, Albuquerque, New Mexico): We said from the very beginning that this is a 360-degree investigation, which means we're looking in all directions.
BAUMGARTEL: The department is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the killer or killers.
(Soundbite of people crying)
BAUMGARTEL: That's small comfort for the relatives and friends of 15-year-old Jamie Perea, whose body was the last to be identified. At her funeral on a windy day earlier this year, each member of her family released a crinkly red cellophane balloon in her memory.
Unidentified Man: We love you, Jamie.
Unidentified Woman #2: We love you, Jamie.
BAUMGARTEL: At least six other women went missing around the same time as the west mesa victims, but their remains were not found in the mass grave. Their missing persons cases remain open and unsolved.
For NPR News, I'm Elaine Baumgartel in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.