In May 1985, a man stopped to urinate off the side of Highway 285 near Lamy, hiked down a culvert to drop out of view, and spotted the remains of a young woman. He was just a tenth of a mile south of the New Mexico Girls Ranch and went there to tell someone to call police. The typed incident report, reviewed more than three decades later by SFR, lists a Jane Doe with an unknown date of birth. Later, someone hand-wrote in "Teal Pittington," and added her birthday in 1965.
By the time her body was found, Pittington had been missing for most of a year. Dental records identified her. It appeared she'd been sexually assaulted and strangled with her own bra. The Santa Fe Police Department had begun a missing persons case when she failed to return to her home on Declovina Street. The responsibility to figure out what happened to Pittington fell on the New Mexico State Police when her body turned up outside city limits.
The case remains unsolved.
But State Police are determined to change that. Last year, Chief Pete Kassetas assigned two officers and an analyst to work through 80 to 100 unsolved homicides, some of which go back decades, and they've placed Pittington's among four at the top of their list to solve.
That means the second largest law enforcement agency in the state has staffed a cold case unit for the first time in at least a decade.
It has taken years to allocate the manpower to work these cases, but Kassetas wanted it done before his time as chief runs out with Gov. Susana Martinez' term in office at the end of the year.
"It's an effort to address something that has kept me up at night," says Kassetas, who discovered a closet with boxes full of unsolved cases when he became a lieutenant with the agency in 2001. Flipping through the files, he realized each one represented a murder victim with a case then five, six or 10 years old, abandoned as agents retired or left the department. File organization resembled that of a pack rat: None at all.
"I asked my boss at the time, 'What do we do with this? Do we have a cold case unit?' and he said, 'No, we don't have time,'" Kassetas recalls.
Kassetas began organizing the files anyway, and contacting retired agents, whose garages often produced stacks of additional written statements. In some cases, he discovered that evidence had been lost, misplaced or destroyed.
Among the cases that surfaced was Tracy Barker's, a 24-year-old who was raped and strangled in 1989. DNA evidence tied Chris McClendon to her case. He was already serving a life sentence for another case, and pleaded no contest to the charges in 2005.
"We thought, 'Hey, we're onto something,'" Kassetas says. "Then, we were inundated with new cases and the cold cases get pushed to the back burner."
But the hook was set, so when he became chief in 2013, Kassetas started fighting for a cold case unit. He had to sell his own department on taking officers off of current violent crimes cases. In early 2017, he dedicated two detectives to the unit full-time.
"We can't ignore these cases, or they're just going to sit in these closets, in those filing cabinets, forever," he says.
Cold cases require luck and ingenuity: a lead toward new witnesses, new information, or new proof of guilt in a case for which all those threads have been pulled to their ends. They are by definition difficult, shelved and shuffled aside because no clear route to an arrest or conviction ever emerged.
"It's just such a hard, hard road for everyone in the criminal justice system, but probably hardest for the family," says Joan Shirley, a victim advocate with the Albuquerque-based Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death. "They're just waiting in this endless track of unknown."
The obstacles to closing these cases can include evidence and documents that have gone missing, were deliberately destroyed when New Mexico still had a statute of limitations for some murder cases, or were lost in a fire at the Office of the Medical Investigator. While DNA testing allows for closure, sometimes even knowing where to dig to exhume a body for those samples has been lost over the years. So agents are banking on time to help in one other simple way: that after all these years, the weight of guilt will have worn through to finally let the truth out.
Pittington's case shows the frustrations, fits and starts that confront cold case detectives by the time a file ends up on their desks. Pittington was reported missing August 18, 1984, one of two young Santa Fe women whose disappearances that month remain unsolved. Her friend called the Santa Fe Police Department four days after last hearing from Pittington, who had complained about problems with her boyfriend and asked to stay at the friend's place. But Pittington never arrived. Acquaintances interviewed in the investigation would describe her as petite and cute, with blond hair and brown eyes and a sarcastic streak that didn't always win her friends. She'd vanished just 80 hours short of graduating a 1,600-hour program at Vogue Beauty College.
City police made the rounds through her life and came up with handfuls of ideas. A neighbor thought drugs were being dealt out of her house. A roommate who cops questioned around those allegations identified herself as Pittington to police days after she was last seen but before she was reported missing. The roommate promptly fled to California. Pittington appeared to be dating multiple men, and one of them claimed he was the last person to see her alive.
Searches at morgues and mental institutions came up empty. Photos of her mailed to other law enforcement agencies and publicized through CrimeStoppers returned nothing. In a move that seems a testament to their exasperation, detectives searched rundown adobe shacks and abandoned mobile homes in Moriarty, following up on a vision from a psychic Pittington's mother consulted. After about a month, the paper trail disappears. No further search for her is noted until her body was found early the next summer and a New Mexico State Police agent picked up the search. The case file documents an agent's trail through friends, friends of friends, bandmates of friends, and former bosses and coworkers. The interviews continued at least through December 1985, seven months after her body was found, then dropped off again.
In 1990, another agent reports that he was "given the case to look over and see what could be done with it." He called Pittington's mother, who told him she "felt that the state police had not done anything on her daughter's case and were not attempting to do anything on the case." Reopening the case meant crosschecking the work of earlier investigations and trying to reconnect with some of the same witnesses. But even just with a gap of six years, Pittington's boyfriend and three other "persons of interest" couldn't be located. With no further leads, the case was again shelved.
This is the mire into which New Mexico State Police agents are now digging, more than 30 years after her death.
Kassetas selected two agents he thought had the "knack" to work cold cases: patience to pore over mounds of paperwork and evidence, methodically pick away at what was or wasn't done, talk to people about events that happened years or decades ago, and approach agents who worked the case previously without insulting their earlier work. The pair also received training specific to working cold cases, a highly specialized area of law enforcement.
State Police Sgt. Mark Soriano leads the new unit. He's been with the agency since 2005, with seven years in the investigations division. He's always liked working on violent crimes, he says, piecing together puzzles.
The first year and a half on the job was spent reading case files and digitizing the records—as in, standing over the scanner for months. They worked through that closet full of boxes, copying every report and attachment. They met with previous investigators. They checked for evidence that, given advancements in testing and analysis, might produce new information. Then they prioritized four cases.
Joan Vance was killed when the Tucumcari gift shop she worked in was robbed in January 2004; Eddie Verdugo and Joyleen Chavez were a brother and sister shot in a Los Lunas house in April 2004; Elizabeth Gonzales was shot and left for dead off Sandhill Road near Los Lunas in December 2004; and Pittington's case from 1984. They're resubmitting evidence, conducting interviews and running social media efforts to trigger tips from the public. Soriano selected the two in Los Lunas because after years of policing that area, he's got contacts there.
There's no set system for when to cycle off one of those four to revisit the others. Kassetas says it's possible cases will be assigned if they align with an agent's current geographic range, but manpower continues to be a limitation. The hope is that between technology and the grind of time, they'll make gains where previous agents were shut down.
"Time is on our side, in a way," Kassetas says. "People who have committed crimes of the magnitude of murder, after time it wears on them and they can't keep their mouth shut. It's amazing how that guilt works on folks."
Time isn't running in the chief's favor, however: He'll likely leave the post with the governor's term. So his succession planning has included looping potential future chiefs into these cases now, so when the choice is theirs to allocate that manpower or not, they're invested.
"If they've helped develop it," he says, "they're going to be the last ones to tear it down."
But while time may turn a guilty conscience, without a full confession, it takes evidence to secure a conviction—and a lot can happen over the years.
The Santa Fe Police Department doesn't have a cold case unit, so Detective Tony Trujillo fits work on them in between responding to daily calls on anything from reported suicides to Alzheimer's patients who wander away from home. A three-ring binder gives him a quick synopsis of unsolved cases, but what's available in terms of additional reports and evidence varies widely. For some cases, the barcoded boxes of evidence available in secure storage in the headquarters basement—"the dungeon"—contain stacks of documents, reports, transcripts, even newspaper clippings. For others, there's far less.
One case from 1974, a Jane Doe in her mid to late teens, came to him with just two pages. It's enough to know that her unclothed body was found after she'd been raped and strangled along Highway 285 south of Arroyo Hondo. Decades later, Trujillo got a call from a woman in Detroit who said her sister had gone missing around the time the body was found. She'd used an online database of missing and unidentified persons reports to spot the SFPD case.
All police have to determine a match is a single grainy photograph of her face, the view in profile and a gold earring visible. The woman from Detroit thinks that's her sister. The body was buried in an indigent cemetery near Glorieta, but the records for exactly where were lost in a fire at the Office of the Medical Investigator in the 1980s. If they knew where she was, they could exhume her, test for the DNA no one would have thought to collect in 1974 and might be able to give her sister a solid answer. For now, it's just a best guess.
The cold case that pretty much lives on Trujillo's desk is for Susan LaPorte. LaPorte, a 25-year-old visiting from Boston in December 1985, had gone to look for a sunny spot to read when she was attacked. From the way her hands were tied and the semen stain on her shirt, FBI analysts he consulted have suggested Trujillo look for a serial rapist rather than a serial killer. To the federal agents, the murder seemed incidental to the primary goal. DNA from LaPorte's shirt was matched with the unknown man who raped and murdered Maria Padilla while she was out for a run in Albuquerque's bosque in May 1985. It's possible that when the Albuquerque Police Department works through a massive backlog of untested rape kits, detectives will locate additional victims and further clues. But it takes time and money to process those kits.
"We have the technology at our disposal to solve these cases," Trujillo says. "The one thing we don't have is manpower."
He's also got a list of people who had served time for sexual assaults between 1980 and 1985, but were released before LaPorte's murder. The question, now, is finding these 64 former inmates and their DNA. But Santa Fe had six homicides last year, he says, and any one of them could have provided enough work for a year. Unless it seems like a prosecutable case—and New Mexico still has a statute of limitations of six years on second-degree murder, so any conviction requires proving premeditation as well—it's tough to take the time from current homicides and potentially solvable cases to work those long seen as impossible to solve. His hope now is that as agencies move from a competitive approach to a more collaborative one, the combined effort will be able to close some of these cases.
He points to the 1989 Barker case, tied with DNA to Chris McClendon, as an example of this; it was a state police case, but he says he nudged them to test evidence that later yielded a match and a confession (although, no one at NMSP remembers taking any advice on how to solve this one, and Kassetas says it was just a hit in the DNA database that closed it).
Pittington's case is the oldest in the state files Soriano thinks is still solvable. He gave it a close look after her father called last year to check on its status.
"We told him we were new to the unit, and we would look into this case, but we hadn't forgotten his daughter," Soriano says. "And once I familiarized myself with that case, I identified that there was some stuff that needed to be done on it."
But they're faced with the absence of evidence: The bra used to strangle her has gone missing. It's thought that her killer would have gripped it tightly enough to have left a sample that could now be tested for DNA.
"We're trying to overcome that," Soriano says. "We're trying to locate it."
Kassetas had to sit down with another victim's family and explain that destroyed or misplaced evidence meant they weren't going to be able to hold someone accountable for his murder. While agents think they know who is responsible, they can't prove it in court.
"It becomes very frustrating when you read the case and you think that it's solvable if you just had the evidence to support your theory," Soriano says. "Short of having evidence, you would need a full confession."
He's also come back to lingering questions about other women who were murdered in the 1980s in Santa Fe.
"This is going to take a while, but we are going to have to go through every single one of those case files and we're going to have to look for similarities in their death, in the way they were found," Soriano says.
He and Trujillo agree it's likely that David Morton, who was tied to two other murders, had more victims than they've officially linked to him. In 2006, Morton confessed to killing Teri Mulvaney and Janet Benoit. The latter woman was a 22-year-old who was raped and stabbed in her hotel room on Cerrillos Road in November 1983 while passing through on her way to a job at a Lady Footlocker in Phoenix.
While the official policy is not to discard any evidence in a homicide, Benoit's case records fill two boxes, while what SFPD could find of Mulvaney's case report amounts to one stapled inch of paper. Trujillo says there are also several three-ring binders still somewhere downstairs. The top three pages belong to a different case, then the document transitions to the narrative of Mulvaney's boyfriend finding her at her home, raped and strangled on her bed, in June 1984.
Trujillo went to question Morton after a retiring crime scene tech called to tell SFPD Morton had mentioned the crimes to another inmate who had then reported it to state Corrections Department staff. Her call was the second time she'd tried to reach Santa Fe police, according to Trujillo, who says she told him she'd called with the same message years before, and never received a response.
"How many times has that happened that we don't even know about?" Trujillo asks.
Morton lived next door to Mulvaney—and she'd told a friend he "gave her the creeps," according to police records. After the district attorney at the time didn't think there was enough evidence for the case, her family pressed for a grand jury investigation that led to an indictment and trial. The jury hung, however, with one person holding out for conviction.
"Which turned out to be extremely useful," points out former DA Henry Valdez, who worked in the office beginning in 1982, "because if they had acquitted him, we would have been barred from double-prosecuting him in 2006."
The case at the time was largely circumstantial. Later, Morton was convicted of raping and murdering another woman in Texas.
"I think everybody wishes we'd have had a great case," Valdez says.
At the Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death support groups Shirley runs for people who have lost family members to homicides, they talk about frustrations with the procedural slow-downs and the lack of information, and how they still dream of resolution, even knowing their family's case has gone cold.
"It's very hard once law enforcement lets them know they've run down all the leads. It's not closed. It's sitting on someone's desk," she says. "You're getting up every morning hoping the phone is going to ring today."
Shirley knows just how that feels. Seven years passed between when her 17-year-old son Kevin and two of his friends were shot in Albuquerque's East Mountains and when an arrest was made. By then, she'd retold it to four or five sergeants as the investigation passed from one to another. And all of it was wrapped in what she likens to a temporary deafness that followed the news her son had been killed. Investigators have to work on solving cases that can be solved, she says, but it's tough for families to see a death that's a daily presence for them become a thing of the past to others. Moving on is balanced with maintaining some hope that someone will come through with information.
"Every once in a while, somebody finally feels safe enough and they'll come forward," she says. "For the most part, that doesn't happen."
Between witness testimony that fell apart—almost all the people present were teenagers at the time, and drugs were involved—and evidence that went missing in the 10 years between the murders and the trial, her son's case ended in acquittal. No matter what new evidence comes forward, that suspect can never be tried again. She's certain they had the right person, she says, it just didn't come across that way in court, where what can be admitted as evidence is limited and where the system depends on people to tell the truth. Years later, there were too many statements that ended in, "I don't really remember."
So among her lingering questions is the one for herself: Would she really want to know what happened in those last few minutes of her son's life, or is it just too painful? She knows of families living with the unsolved death of a grandparent. That mystery weaves into an intergenerational legacy, absolute in its absence of any hope of an answer.
A list of additional cold cases on the New Mexico State Police list can be found at sp.nm.gov/index.php/cold-case-homicide-unit.
Published with funding from the Criminal Justice Project of the Asian American Journalists Association.