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Land of unsolved murders

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About the cover


D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    April 2008

Getting Away with Murder

The Land of Enchantment is also the land of unsolved murders, with more than 100 outstanding homicide cases since 1976 alone.

By Jeff Berg

New Mexico's long history of unsolved murders may have started with the killing of Esteban the Moor by the Zuni people in 1539. Esteban, who was probably the first black person ever to set foot in what was eventually to become New Mexico, was a slave at one time. In fact, he was a slave two different times — once in Spain, and again as a captive of American Indians in or around present-day Florida. Esteban is thought to have been originally captured in Morocco, and later purchased by a Spanish nobleman named Dorantes.

Paula Moore's new book explores
the unsolved 1949 murder of "Cricket" Coogler.

In 1527, on an expedition to Florida, most of the men involved, including Dorantes, were killed during a storm at sea. Esteban and three others lived, but were captured and enslaved by a native tribe in Florida. They later escaped and made a remarkable journey from Florida to New Mexico, from which they were finally able to make their way back to "civilization" in Mexico. Esteban more or less became the point man for this small but hardy group; he easily befriended the Indians they encountered along the way, and was able to learn the various languages quickly and easily. Legend holds that he was seen as a sort of shaman by some of the native tribes.

Later, Esteban accompanied another expedition from Mexico, returning to present-day New Mexico. The Spanish party followed the Rio Grande, looking for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, which were rumored to be made of gold. Esteban used an elaborate ruse to keep most of his traveling companions behind him, since once again he was the unofficial leader of the trip, even though he was still officially a slave.

But Esteban the Moor made one fatal error: He carried a medicine gourd or rattle that was decorated with owl feathers. Upon reaching the Zuni pueblo, Esteban's "magic" wore off. The Zuni were distrustful of him, because in their culture, owl feathers signified death. After the Spanish were refused entrance to the Zuni pueblos, a group of warriors attacked and killed Esteban and the rest of his party.

He had indeed found the "cities of gold," but what was thought to be gold was actually sunlight that glistened and reflected off the rooftops of the seven Zuni villages. The greedy Spaniards sadly mistook this glow for that of buildings made of gold.

Technically, Esteban the Moor also earned the dubious honor of being the victim in one of the first unsolved murders in New Mexico. His Zuni killer (or killers), after all, was never identified or brought to Spanish justice.

Ever since that 16th century slaying, New Mexico has continued to be a hotbed of unsolved homicides.

So what is it about our fair state that leads to so many homicides, so many of which are never "cleared," as the cops would say? Hard to say, but here are some stats for you to consider:

In 2006, the state recorded 132 murders, which works out to 6.8 per 100,000 people. New Mexico's number of murders per year has stayed fairly constant in recent years; 1996 was a peak year, with 197 people slain. In 2005, the most current year for which comparable statistics are available, New Mexico had the sixth highest murder rate per 100,000 residents among all states, at 7.4. Only Arizona (7.5), Alabama (8.2), Louisiana (9.9), Maryland (9.9) and Nevada (8.5) surpassed us in per-capita homicides. We'd look better, though, if the District of Columbia were a state, since it checks in with an incredible 35.4 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2005, ahead of fellow non-state Puerto Rico, another homicide haven at 19.6. New Mexico is by far the least-populated of these high-homicide states, close only to Nevada, which boasts 2.4 million to our 1.9 million.

For more on New Mexico Survivors of Homicide, write

400 Gold Ave. SW,
Suite 500, #27
Albuquerque, NM 87102

call (505) 232-4099 or toll-free (877) 700-8500
email info@nmsoh.org; or visit www.nmsoh.org

The Silence of Cricket Coogler will be screened on Saturday, April 5, at 1:30 p.m. as part of the CineMatinee movie series at the Fountain Theatre in Mesilla, 2469 Calle de Guadalupe, 524-8287/522-0286. Admission is $4, $1 for Mesilla Valley Film Society members.

Morgan Quitno Press, a major player in city and state "ranking" publications, puts Las Cruces at number 164 among US metropolitan areas in the murder rate per 100,000 people in 2005. This ranking puts Las Cruces (4.2 homicides per 100,000 folks) ahead of Omaha, Neb. (4.1), San Angelo, Texas (3.7), and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (3.5), but way behind Albuquerque (9.3) and Pine Bluff, Ark., which amazingly led the way at a Puerto Rico-like 19.6 murders per 100,000 Arkansans. (If it is safety you seek, head for Rochester, Minn., or Wausau, Wisc., where there were no murders at all in 2005.)

Not only do we have more than our share of murders, but a seemingly shocking number of New Mexico killings have never been solved. According to the Web site of the New Mexico Survivors of Homicide (NMSOH, www.nmsoh.org), an Albuquerque-based organization that works with families and friends who have lost a loved one by murder, at least 100 murders from 1976 through 2004 remain unsolved.

Admittedly, it's not unusual for someone to literally get away with murder. Nationally, according to one study, of the 16,137 murders committed in 2004, as of June 1, 2006, 6,035 had yet to be solved.

In New Mexico, NMSOH provides information about victims' and survivors' rights and about compensation through the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission (and others), and also works to lobby for changes in the law such as reducing "good time" awards to convicted murderers. Between 1993 and 2005, according to the survivors group, 2,283 New Mexicans died at the hands of others.

The organization also works to help solve those 100 outstanding cases, noting, "The families of murder victims whose cases remain unsolved are suffering and we need to bring the criminals to justice." If you have any information on any unsolved violent crimes, NMSOH urges you to contact your local authorities. You can call State Crimestoppers from anywhere in the country at (800) 432-6933; you will remain anonymous.

Statistics aside, many of New Mexico's most notable homicides remain unsolved mysteries. For example, history buffs are well acquainted with the death of Colonel Albert Fountain, a prominent lawyer, soldier and politician, who lived in Mesilla for many years and was killed with his son Henry in early 1896 while returning from a trial in Lincoln, NM. Although two other prominent locals, Oliver Lee and Jim Gilliland, were charged and tried with the Fountains' deaths, they were found innocent, partially because the two bodies were never found. The crime still can result in hot debate among long-time area residents, and search parties hunted unsuccessfully for remains or clues as recently as 1997.

Then of course there was Pat Garrett, the New Mexico lawman famous for shooting Billy the Kid. Garrett himself was killed 100 years ago this past February, in yet another murder that was never completely solved. Although Jesse Wayne Brazel admitted shooting Garrett, he was acquitted claiming self defense. Oddly, a known political enemy of Garrett and Fountain, Albert Fall, was an attorney in both trials, which involved other well-known ranchers and fancy-pants from around the area, including W.W. Cox and, again, Oliver Lee. Despite Brazel's account, some locals continued to believe that Garrett's enemies had hired Jim "Killer" Miller (also known as "Deacon Jim" for eschewing tobacco and liquor), an outlaw who already had blood on his hands, to kill the famous lawman. Conspiracy theories have abounded over the years, and, as in the killing of the Fountains, this crime still leads to lively disputes.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that in 1947, a relative of Jesse Brazel, W.W. Brazel, was the foreman on the ranch who found the debris that led to Roswell's notoriety as the place where a UFO "crashed." (Although the site was actually 70 miles away from the Roswell.) The Brazel family just seems to be tangled upon in mysteries.

A less well-known but no less mysterious murder occurred in 1869, when the body of Giovanni Maria Agostini was found at La Cueva, a natural cave located at the base of the Organ Mountains. Long a shelter for nomadic people, possibly as far back as 5000 BC, La Cueva became the last home for Agostini, who became known fetchingly as "The Hermit."

Agostini had arrived in New Mexico in 1867, first settling in the northern part of the state, near Las Vegas. Agostini was seen as a holy man and healer, and it became kind of a contradiction to refer to him as a hermit: A penitente, Agostini drew many people to see him because of his reputed healing powers.

One of the people who befriended him (note the irony here) was none other than Albert Fountain. Yes, that Albert Fountain. In 1869, Agostini walked from his previous cave near Las Vegas to Mesilla, in part to visit with Fountain about a legal matter.

Agostini took up residency at La Cueva, despite warnings not to do so. Legend notes that he told a local family, the Barelas, "I shall make a fire in front of my cave every Friday evening while I shall be alive. If the fire fails to appear, it will be because I have been killed."

Sure enough, Agostini was found in the spring of 1869 after the fire failed to appear, face down with a knife in his back. No one was ever charged with his killing, and again, the case remains a subject of debate among historians. Some claim Agostini was murdered by an unknown white man, while others believe that he was a victim of the Indians, as was reported in the May 10, 1869, edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Space and lack of resources will not allow for much information about the number of American Indians who were in turn murdered in New Mexico over the years, but rest assured there were plenty. Most were not seen as "real" murders during the encroachment by Anglo and Spanish invaders, and so of course they were never "solved."

More recently, one of the most incredible unsolved New Mexico murders was the case of Ovida "Cricket" Coogler, whose body was found in the desert south of Las Cruces 59 years ago this month.

Coogler was a young waitress who lived and worked in Las Cruces, and she was by no means an angel herself. But in a way she became a martyr for New Mexico, which was then a willing host to any number of criminal activities, and was on the short list of places that "the Mob" wanted to use to offer unrestricted gambling, a distinction that ultimately went to Las Vegas, Nevada, instead. The aftermath of Coogler's killing helped push New Mexico to bid adieu to the Mob and various other miscreants who were taking advantage of the state's reputation as an anything-goes sort of place.

In her fascinating new book, Cricket in the Web (University of New Mexico Press, $24.95), Las Cruces author Paula Moore goes into detail about the case which involved corrupt politicians, civil rights violations, an activist grand jury, and untold others.

"I got interested in the case when I saw a presentation by (author) Tony Hillerman at NMSU in the 1980s," Moore says. "He was reading from an essay that he had written about the case, and I wanted to look up more information immediately. He had a vivid opening line that described sand blowing off the shins of Cricket Coogler's body with four rabbit hunters in the distance."

It was these four hunters who found Coogler's mangled body on the Saturday before Easter Sunday. One of the hunters, Jerry Smith, who now lives in Anthony, NM, was the first to find her body, which was partially naked and covered with what Smith thought were a few shovelfuls of dirt.

The investigation of Coogler's murder was handled by "Happy" Apodaca, then sheriff of Dona Ana County. The case took on a life of its own, and later Apodaca and New Mexico State Police Chief Hubert Beasley were convicted of violating the civil rights of Wesley Byrd, a black man who was arrested, falsely accused of Coogler's murder, and tortured by Apodaca and a deputy. Apodaca's handling of the case, as well as other charges, resulted in his resignation as sheriff, although he later became a justice of the peace.

Another suspect, Jerry Nuzum, an NMSU alumnus and a pro football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers, actually went to trial in the case, but was found not guilty.

Much like the Garrett and Fountain murders, Coogler's death is still an issue for many people. Indeed, when Ollie Coogler, Cricket's mother, passed away in 1994, someone broke into her house during the funeral and stole all of her papers and files pertaining to the case.

"It was surprising the names that came up during my research," Moore says. "The whole story is like a big messy puzzle, and short of a deathbed confession, we may never really know what happened."

Moore will be the guest at an April 5, 1:30 p.m. screening at the Fountain Theatre in Mesilla of a documentary film about the case, The Silence of Cricket Coogler. She will talk about her book and offer more details from her research.

Another New Mexican named Apodaca was involved in the cases of not one but two later unsolved murders. The first, in 1966, took place in Truth or Consequences, where Mary Scott Apodaca was strangled in April of that year. Her husband, Wash Apodaca, was arrested and tried for the crime. Wash Apodaca is a cousin of "Happy" Apodaca as well as of former New Mexico Governor Jerry Apodaca

Wash Apodaca's trial became somewhat of a farce after numerous prosecution witnesses were discredited by defense attorneys amid accusations of alcohol abuse. Apodaca, who was once a justice of the peace and a candidate for Sierra County sheriff, was acquitted and released. No one else was ever charged with his wife's murder.

Wash Apodaca's name came up again in 1974, when he was arrested and charged with the shooting death of a young Washington state hitchhiker, Catherine Susan Mason. Her body was found 30 miles west of Deming, near Interstate 10, by a passing train crew. Mason had been shot six times, in a manner suggestive of "torture shooting" — five wounds before a fatal shot was administered to her head, according to her autopsy report.

It was during this autopsy, which took place in Albuquerque, that for unknown reasons, her hands were cut off and given to a Luna County deputy to return to Deming as evidence. The deputy made it, but Mason's severed hands did not. Numerous inquiries to those who perform autopsies revealed that these experts had never heard of such a thing, suggesting that Mason's hands might have belatedly pointed to the identity of her killer.

Several weeks after the killing, Apodaca was arrested in Arizona and brought back to Luna County and charged with first-degree murder. The case became entangled in red tape, because at the time, there was a challenge to the state's mandatory death penalty law for murder cases.

Moreover, one of Apodaca's attorneys, Glenn Neumeyer, had filed a motion to suppress the testimony of Dr. Tyler Payton, a psychotherapist with the Veteran's Administration. The court ordered that Payton could not testify in court about any conversations with Apodaca because these discussions were privileged by doctor-patient confidentiality. Without the testimony of Payton, District Attorney Serna said the state did not have probable cause to pursue its prosecution.

Apodaca had been out on $50,000 bond. The case against him was "dismissed without prejudice" in May of 1976. Wash now lives in the Las Cruces area.

No one else was ever charged in the murder of Catherine Susan Mason. Her sister, Lori Smith, who lives in Seattle, says that their mother, right up until her death, would call the Luna County sheriff's office every year on or around the anniversary of Cathy Mason's death to inquire about any progress in the case.

About three-quarters of the unsolved recent murders listed by NMSOH occurred in Albuquerque. Of the four Las Cruces murders listed, three stem from a single incident that remains one of the area's most notorious unsolved cases. Four people actually lost their lives: Steven S. Teran, Valerie Teran, Paula Holguin and Amy Houser.

It has been dubbed the "Bowling Alley Massacre," and took place one morning in February 1990. An article on the NMSOH site by Renee Green describes what happened: "Steven worked at Las Cruces Bowling Alley and his wife was attending classes. This Saturday was no different for the family with Steven heading off to work around 8 a.m., taking his two little girls along because the bowling alley had a daycare center the little girls could stay in while he worked and their mother attended her Saturday class.

"Already inside the bowling alley were the cook, Ida Holguin (no relation); Stephanie Senac, the owner's daughter and manager; Stephanie's daughter, Melissa Repass, who was about 15 at the time; and Melissa's friend, Amy Houser, who was 13. The two young girls were there to supervise the daycare that day. Unknown to Steven, he was walking right into a massacre that would scar the very souls of families for years to come.

"Steven walked through the door with his two little girls right into the middle of a supposed 'robbery' in progress. One of the two robbers met them as they walked in and led them in the office where the other four women were lying on the floor. They were ordered on the floor and within minutes the two robbers shot all seven people execution style, started a fire on the desk, then fled leaving all seven people for dead."

Steven Teran, Paula Holguin and young Amy Houser died instantly, and Teran's daughter Valerie died on the way to the hospital. Melissa Repass — who, despite having been shot, got up and called 911 and then tried to put out the fire — survived, along with fellow shooting victims Stephanie Senac and Ida Holguin.

Efforts to put out the fire also destroyed some of the evidence at the crime scene. Despite a monumental effort by Las Cruces police, no one was ever charged in the shootings. It's thought that the perpetrators may have fled to Mexico.

The "Bowling Alley Massacre" has been covered on "Unsolved Mysteries," "America's Most Wanted" and even Montel Williams' TV talk show. A sketch artist now with the Houston police department, Lois Gibson, has done a rendition of two suspects in the case. Steven Teran's brother continues to seek a resolution to the case.

The other Las Cruces case listed by NMSOH is that of Shawn Allen Tise, who disappeared on Jan. 6, 1995. His body was later found by a family hiking in the Robledo Mountains, and authorities have never determined exactly what happened to Tise.

Not all unsolved murders in the state are listed on the NMSOH site. A more recent case is the Dec. 30, 2005, ranch slaying of John Timothy Edwards near Silver City. According to police, Allen Snyder told them that his son Michael James Snyder confessed to the murder. But the younger Snyder subsequently recanted his confession and the case — despite being featured on TV's "America's Most Wanted" — remains open.

A bit farther afield, in Lincoln County, NM, there's the McKnight mystery. In November 1984, the bodies of Thomas "Cotton" McKnight and his wife Judy McKnight were found in the kitchen of their ranch home. According to the New Mexico State Police Cold Case Web site (www.dps.state.nm.us/lawEnforcement/coldCase), the couple was "last seen alive on Nov. 13, 1984. It was determined that they died from gunshot wounds. There was no sign of forced entry to the residence and evidence at the scene supports that the McKnights either knew their assailant(s) and/or were comfortable with their being in the residence.

"The case was initially investigated by the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department with assistance from the New Mexico State Police. In December 1984, the New Mexico State Police terminated their assistance in the investigation, which was continued by the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department. In August 1985, the Twelfth Judicial District Attorney's Office in Lincoln County convened an Investigative Grand Jury into the McKnight murders. The Grand Jury did not return any indictments and recommended that the investigation continue. In September 1985, the New Mexico Attorney General and the New Mexico State Police conducted a joint investigation into the McKnight murders.

"As of this date, no viable suspect(s) have been identified in this case."

The list goes on and on. And that's without even looking just over the border to Juarez, where the number of unsolved killings makes those in New Mexico pale in comparison. At least 300 women have perished in the continued femicide that has gripped the city for a dozen years, and just this year alone, over 100 people have been murdered in Juarez — most, apparently, in drug-related incidents.

Solutions? Probably none. Gun-control efforts in the US have actually regressed in recent years, and certainly guns alone aren't the problem. Murder can be done with almost anything — back in 1982, a friend of mine was murdered with a broken wine glass.

People are the problem, as they have been since long before the killing of Esteban the Moor. Since "civilization" began, we've yet to learn to resist the temptation that led Cain to tackle his problems with brother Abel by resorting to homicide. And despite the advances in criminology dramatized on shows like "CSI:," countless latterday Cains continue to evade punishment, their crimes filed away as "cold cases."

"Every unpunished murder," said Daniel Webster, "takes away something from the security of every man's life."

Looking at New Mexico's many murder mysteries, it's hard to dispute that.

Senior writer Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.


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