“Ouch! That damn bush bit me.” I groaned to my son and hiking buddy, Rob, while I stopped to pull a thorn from my bleeding finger. Rob was a couple of yards ahead of me on a make-shift trail leading down into a sandy arroyo. Rob wandered back to me and laughed at my girlish response to my little wound. He lifted his canteen and took a big swig as he walked over to a little clearing then shouted excitedly, “Dad, dad uh … look at this,” pointing to something white in the sand at his feet.
“These bones look human. Look at that … that’s a foot and it ain’t the foot of some four legged creature … it’s a human foot.” Rob shouted as we both dropped to our knees and started digging through the soft sand with our hands. We soon uncovered more bones; the bones of a human torso.
“These are definitely human but I don’t have a clue as to how old they are. If they’re old we can dig them up and play amateur archeologists but if they’re recent we could be messing with a crime scene,” I said as I rose to my feet.
“I think we ought to take this foot back to the sheriff’s office, tell him where we found it and let them dig ‘em up. Maybe if there’s something in the grave like old artifacts or Apache relics they’ll let us have them for finding and reporting the bones. What do you think?”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. If we’ve stumbled onto a crime scene we should let the CSI people do their thing,” Rob said reluctantly.
This receptionist at the sheriff’s office led us to a conference room and introduced us to Deputy Phil Adams. We showed him the foot and told him the story of finding the bones. We pored over a detailed map of Spring Canyon but couldn’t pinpoint the location of the grave so Phil invited us to lead him and a couple of evidence techs to the site tomorrow morning. We agreed to come back at nine. That was easy enough.
“Good morning guys I’d like you to meet Sally Alvarez and Mike Anders. This is Bob Rockwell and his son Rob. Sally and Mike will dig up those bones and get them to the coroner for analysis. You guys ready? Let’s head out then. You can ride with me and the techs will follow in their van.”
“Park right over there,” I said when we got to the third picnic table in the Spring Canyon picnic grounds. “It’s about a 15 minute hike into the canyon over that rise and down into an arroyo,” I said pointing into the brush.
The techs unloaded their gear. Rob and I grabbed two shovels and what looked like a tackle box before we all headed down the trail. Rob led the way and it was pretty easy going after we got over the rise. I had tied my handkerchief in a scrub oak yesterday to mark the grave. We both pointed to the bones sticking up through the sand.
Sally and Mike set their gear down and started photographing the scene just like the CSI folks do on TV. Rob and I sat in the shade and watched the sheriff’s team do their thing. Phil came over and joined us as Mike started to dig. Sally was on her knees retrieving, dusting and labeling each bone before she put it into a large duffle bag. After 30 minutes or so she lifted a skull from the two foot deep hole and held it up for us to see. “I don’t see any fillings or anything that would give us an approximate age. If I were to guess, I’d say that our bony friend here is female and she has only been in the ground for a few years.”
They kept digging and sifting for another two hours before Mike called it quits. Sally agreed saying that she thought that they had a complete skeleton in their bag. Enough for today.
On the ride back to the station Phil told us what would happen next. The county coroner would assemble the skeleton and do a cursory exam. The dental work would be the most telling. After that they would send the bones to the State Police crime lab in Santa Fe for carbon dating, DNA analysis and what ever else they did up there. It would be a couple of weeks before we’d know anything.
Three days later Phil called and said, “The coroner’s report is in and our skeleton is female and judging from the size a teenager or a young woman and … and she was pregnant … early in her second trimester. He also thinks the bones have been in the ground for less than 20 years. Sounds like we’ve got a suspicious death on our hands.”
“Wow, that’s great … er … I didn’t mean … ah … what’s next?”
“I’ll send her remains up to Santa Fe and see what they can tell us. We need an accurate age estimate and a better guess on her time of death before we can even begin to ID the victim. Once we know who she is and when she died we can begin to piece together what happened and who might have done it. I’ll keep you posted on what we learn.”
“Thanks for the update, Phil. Talk to you soon. Bye.”
I told Rob everything that Phil had said and he began pacing around our living room. As he paced he became more and more animated. “I want to figure out who this girl was and what happened to her. And, if some asshole killed her I want to nail the bastard. We can do it; we’ve read enough books and watched enough TV to know the drill. What do you say, Dad? Up for solving a murder?”
“We don’t know if it was a murder, and if it was, if the sheriff’s department will let us poke around in their case. The key will be if Phil shares with us what he learns from the lab in Santa Fe and if he’s assigned to the case. Once we learn her age and the approximate date of her death we can offer to do the grunt work of finding out who she was. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
I had almost forgotten about our little mystery when Phil called again. “It took ‘em six weeks but the state lab folks came through. Our Jane Doe was 15 or 16 years old and affluent enough to have had proper dental care. She was 14 weeks pregnant and her bones show no signs of trauma or an apparent cause of death. And, are you ready for this, she died in 1998 or 1999. They did DNA tests but, not surprisingly, they didn’t find a match.”
“Did they do a DNA profile on the fetus? And if so, will we be able to identify the father from their analysis?”
“You know that’s a good point. I didn’t even think to ask. I’ll call the lab and see what they say.”
“Phil, we want to help you identify this girl. If we snoop around will we get in the way?”
“No not at all. I’ve got this and a bunch of other things on my plate. Cold cases like this tend to be back-burner items. We work on them when we have the time, which is almost never. I’ll do a check for any missing girl reports in the ‘98/’99 time frame both here and with the Deming Police. Do you guys want to hit the newspapers?”
“Sure, we’ll jump at the chance to help in any way we can.”
“Okay, only two rules. You share everything you learn and you don’t do anything without my approval. Okay?”
“Yep, we’ll start with the newspapers. Thanks Phil.”
“Okay, get to work … we’ll talk later."
Rob was excited that Phil was going to let us play detectives. “What do we do first, Dad … how do we begin?”
“Let’s start with The Deming Headlight. Their archives are on line now so we won’t have to pore over two years of microfiche or old, yellowed newspapers. We want to look for any articles about missing girls about the age of our Jane Doe during the years of 1998 and 1999.”
Rob spent days working the paper’s archive data base, searching for every combination of and every synonym for “missing girl” with no luck. No girls of any age were reported missing during those two years. I called Phil to tell him that we’d found nothing. He said his search for missing-person reports had also come up empty. He gave us the go-ahead to dig through the high school records.
How could a 15 year old girl not be missed? Maybe she was a run-away from somewhere else? Maybe she was an orphan and no one cared that she was missing? Maybe her parents or guardians played some part in her death and never reported her missing? Maybe she was an illegal or the daughter of illegals who were afraid to report her missing? Maybe, too damn many maybes.
I said to Rob, “I think it would be futile to assume she was from somewhere else and died here. We’d be searching data bases and archives forever. Let’s assume she was from Deming and her disappearance was never reported for some unknown reason. Let’s go to the high school and see if a girl just never showed up one day in ’98 or ’99, or dropped out unexpectedly, or went to lunch and never came back, or missed her bus ride home or some such thing. It wasn’t that long ago maybe someone will remember.”
The school administrative staff were accommodating but not very helpful. Their records were stored at their administration office and they couldn’t do anything without a name and police authorization. I explained again to them that we didn’t know her name; her name was why we were here. They wouldn’t budge from this Catch 22 but as we were leaving the secretary said, “You know who might know? Sara Gomez has been teaching freshman and sophomore English here for years and years. I’d talk to her. Let me look and see when she’s free … oh, not until lunch. Can you stick around til then?”
We met Mrs. Gomez in the school cafeteria. She looked exactly like my stogy old English teachers did over fifty years ago. She listened to our story intently, interrupting to clarify one point after another. She looked off into space for the longest time, clearly thinking about all that she had heard. “I’ve got my grade books for the last 30 years at home. I’ll look for a freshman or sophomore girl that just seemed to disappear in what years did you say?”
“1998 and 1999,” I said rising while I handed Mrs. Gomez my card. “Please call me if you come up with anything.”
“I surely will, we’ve got to find out who that poor unfortunate girl was and give her loved ones some closure.”
As we were driving back home Rob said, “What do we do now dad?”
We didn’t have to wait long. Mrs. Gomez called two days later. “Mr. Rockwell I’ve got three names for you. First, a Kathryn Bowers, a freshman who’s last day of school was October 21st, 1999. Next, I found Maria Hernandez a sophomore whose last day of school was March 2nd, 1999 and lastly, I have Gabriela Baca, a sophomore who hasn’t been seen since April 14th, 1998. Now, get out there and put a proper name on that poor Jane Doe.”
“Yes Ma’am … and thanks.”
“Okay Rob, Mrs. Gomez gave us our orders. I think our next step is to go back to the high school and learn all we can about these three girls. Do you think they’ll let us rummage through their records or do we need to get Phil involved to make it an official inquiry? Let’s share what we learned with Phil and see what he thinks.”
Phil agreed to meet us at the high school administration building the following morning. Phil asked to see whoever was in charge of school records. We were soon ushered into this tiny little office where Phil sat and Rob and I stood while we listened to bureaucratic lecture about the privacy of school records from Homer Ramirez, the school’s archivist. Phil soon lost his cool and said in as stern a voice as I’ve ever heard from him. “Get me the damn files for these three girls,” he said as he handed Homer the list.
Homer left the room without argument. He returned in a surprisingly short time with three thin manila files which he handed to Phil, sat back down at his desk and glared at us.
Phil gave a file to me, another to Rob and started reading the third. After about 10 minutes Phil said, “She’s not Kathryn Bowers, Kathryn formally checked out of school to relocate to Arizona.”
We sat there a few more minutes when Rob said, “I like Gabriela Baca for our Jane Doe. Her record shows that she just didn’t show up one day in April 1998. Never to be heard from again. I really like Gabriela; she meets all of the criteria. She was … let’s see her birthday was in July … so she was 15, almost 16 on her last day of school on April 14th, 1998. And look at this … her guardians are listed as Manuel and Rosa Baca of a P.O. Box in Columbus. She must have lived in Palomas and crossed the border to go to school here. That might explain why her disappearance was never reported. Maybe she was illegal, maybe her parents were, or maybe they didn’t speak English … I like Gabriela for our Jane Doe.”
I glanced back at Maria Hernandez’s file open in my hands. “Maria is from Deming and should be easy to check out. I’ll take down her address and her parents’ names. Rob, get everything you can about Gabriela.”
We thanked Homer and gathered together in the parking lot. Phil said, “I’ll ring out Maria Hernandez here in Deming. You guys figure out how you’re going to track down the Bacas on the other side of the border. I’d start with the P.O. Box in Columbus and then recruit someone that can help you in Mexico.”
The post office was no help at all. In fact we felt that they wouldn’t tell us even if they knew who had rented box 204 in 1998. Our one lead in the US was a dead end. We were off to Mexico.
“Let’s draft one of our pals at The Pink Store to help,” Rob said. “I’m sure they’ll know their way around down here a lot better than us and we could sure use their Spanish.”
We invited our pal, Jorge, to join us for lunch and told him the whole story. “I think we should start with the police and see if they have any missing-person reports during that time frame and then check with city hall to see if we can find an address for a Manual and Rosa Baca.” Jorge and Rob agreed and we were off to the police station.
The police were cooperative and pleasant but they were clueless. No one knew where their 1998 records were, if indeed they had any, and no one could remember a missing girl in any year. We thanked them and set out for city hall. After endless discussions in rapid-fire Spanish, that I couldn’t follow, I concluded that these Mexican bureaucrats were equally as uninformative as our own at the Columbus Post Office. So much for plan A.
Maybe a bounty or finder’s fee would work. I told Jorge to tell all of his friends that I would pay $100 U.S. for the Baca’s address. We said goodbye and headed home depressed with our lack of progress and thinking that detective grunt work was like all other grunt work … frustrating and not much fun.
Three days later Ivonne called from The Pink Store to say that Jorge had some news and for us and to come down right away. I told her we’d be there in an hour.
“I think we found the Bacas. Mi amigo, Pablo, has been asking everybody in town. He’s pretty sure these are the people you’re looking for,” Jorge said proudly.
“Nice to meet you, Pablo. Come get in the car … lets go see the Bacas.” Jorge, Pablo, Rob and I bounced down the unpaved streets of Palomas. Pablo gave me directions in Spanish and after about 10 minutes or so we pulled up in front of a humble but neat little house.
Jorge went to the door and an older woman answered. They talked for a while across the threshold before Jorge returned to the car. “I told her we may have some information about her daughter, Gabriella and she started to cry. She said come back after six when her husband is home and they will talk with us then.”
We went back to The Pink Store to plan our interview over a couple of beers. At six I drove Pablo home before the three of us returned to the Baca’s house with two six packs of Corona, some nachos and a plate of The Pink Store’s wonderful guacamole.
Rosa met us at the door and after a few words in Spanish led us into what passed for their living room. She was a plump, matronly looking woman in an old fashioned house dress and apron. Manuel was seated on the couch in his dirty work clothes. He was dressed like he might be a farm laborer. We passed the beer and chips to Rosa. She handed each of us a beer and took the rest to the kitchen. She returned with the nachos and dip in what must have been her best China. Manuel gave a brief toast with tears in his eyes, “A mi dulce Gabriela.”
Jorge gave a little talk and as best as I could tell he told them the same story I had told him a few days earlier. The Bacas listened intently. Rosa began to sob softy while Manuel just stared at me and Rob. No one took a drink of their beer during Jorge’s story. It was a solemn few minutes. I knew then we had found the home of our Jane Doe and she was indeed, Gabriella Baca of P.O. Box 204, Columbus, New Mexico and from this little casa on this dusty street in Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico.
I told the Bacas what we had learned from the school records and Manuel confirmed that Gabby, he called her Gabby, never came home after school on April 14th, 1998. Rosa let out a loud sob. I told them that the remains we found were probably Gabby’s. I made a commitment to find out what had happened to her and to have her returned to her parents for a proper burial.
I asked through Jorge, “Would you have anything of Gabby’s that we might use for DNA comparison … a lock of hair, her hairbrush, one of her baby teeth?”
Rosa left the room without saying a word. She returned a few minutes later and while wiping away tears she handed me an envelope containing a lock of glossy black hair.
I took a small number of hairs from the envelope and handed it back to Rosa. “Thank you for this,” I said. “We’ll only need a few … you keep this little bit of Gabby.”
As we were preparing to leave I asked, “Did Gabby have any special friends in high school? Anyone that might know what went on the day she disappeared?”
Rosa thought for a few minutes and said in broken English, “Gloria Quintana. I theenk chee was from Deming.”
We thanked Rosa and Manuel and promised to get back to them with more news.
“Wow, that was pretty intense,” Rob said as we were driving back to drop Jorge off. “Today was the first news they’ve heard of Gabby after what’s it been … a little over 12 years now. We’ve got to find out what happened to her and put these poor people’s souls to rest.”
I gave Jorge five twenties and told him to pay Pablo whatever split they had agreed upon. And, after second thought, I gave him another hundred and told him it was a hundred bucks each.
I called Phil as soon as we got home. He called me back a few minutes later and I brought him up to date on what we had learned in Palomas and he said he’d swing by and pick up the hair samples. He got more and more excited as he went on and on about how he was going to find Gloria Quintana even though her name probably wasn’t Quintana now.
I looked through the Deming phone book and found 8 listings for Quintanas, from Francisco to Ramon. I wondered if we might find Gloria faster than Phil but we decided to wait a couple of days and see what Phil came up with.
Three days later Phil called and said. “Our Gloria Quintana is now Mrs. Gloria Sanchez and she lives on Encanto Circle here in Deming. Do you want to go with me to meet her tonight?”
“You bet. We wouldn’t miss it.”
We met at Gloria’s. She was initially taken back by the patrol car and a uniformed deputy until Phil told her we were looking into the disappearance of Gabby Baca and that Gabby’s parents suggested we talk to her.
She invited us in. Her husband and baby boy joined us in the living room.
“What took you so long? Gabby has been missing for years.” Gloria said to Phil as if she was ready to start an argument.
“No one ever told us that she was missing … and if it wasn’t for Bob and Rob here we still wouldn’t know a thing. They uncovered some bones a couple of months ago and have been helping me identify them. We think the bones might be Gabby’s.”
“Oh my God! Are you sure it’s Gabby.”
“We’re pretty sure. DNA tests of some hair Gabby’s mother gave us will confirm it. We’ll know for sure in a couple of weeks,” Phil said in response. “What can you tell us about Gabby and her last few days in 1998?”
“I’ve never told anyone about this before but with what you just told me I wish I had spoken up a long time ago. You see, Gabby was involved with an older man back then. She’d leave school during her lunch hour, ditch her afternoon classes and then sneak back in time to catch her bus home. That’s what she did on the last day that I saw her. I didn’t know that she missed her bus that night. I only knew that she wasn’t in school the next day and I never saw her again.”
“Did you know that she was pregnant when she disappeared?” Phil asked.
“She never admitted it but I suspected she was.”
“Who do you think the father was?”
“Gabby wasn’t dating anyone from school but she was secretly seeing a cop; the cop who came by the school every day at lunch to slow the traffic down. She would sneak off with him at lunch and come back in time to catch her bus back to the border.”
“Do you know his name or can you describe him?”
“It was a long time ago but I remember he was Hispanic, about 25 or so, slender and oh yeah, he wore a mustache, a Pancho Villa-like mustache.”
“Thanks, you’ve been very helpful.”
“Would you let me know if you confirm that it is Gabby?”
“Should we wait for the DNA analysis of her hair or should we start looking for the police officer that Gloria described,” I asked.
“The Deming police won’t take kindly to you snooping around in what might be a murder case and a murder that might involve one of their own. Let me look into this. I should be able to find who had traffic duty at the high school in the spring of 1998. Sit tight and I’ll get back to you.”
The days passed ever so slowly. It felt like we were getting close but we couldn’t think of anything to do but wait until we heard from Phil. I was so anxious that I drove to the high school, parked near the main intersection and tried to visualize what might have gone on there 12 years ago. A few minutes before noon a squad car pulled up and parked right at the corner. The officer just sat in his car and watched the traffic. The school bell rang and soon backpack toting students were everywhere. The officer rolled down his window and spoke to number of kids as they passed by. No one stopped at his car nor did he get out for almost an hour; he just sat there.
I tried to imagine a 15 year old girl flirting at the car window and then getting into the passenger seat. She would have hidden on the floor while they drove to some spot where they could be alone. I could picture this, easily.
It was nearly three weeks before Phil called and invited us for coffee. We raced to the coffee shop knowing that Phil would have the answers we’d been anxiously waiting for. Phil was coy at first, like he was just playing with us. He took forever to stir the sugar in his coffee. Finally he said, “We got a match. The DNA of the hair matches that of the skeleton. It’s a 100% match, our Jane Doe is Gabriela Baca.”
I was prepared for this but couldn’t fathom how I was going to tell Rosa and Manuel. “Have you made any progress identifying the traffic cop?”
“The Deming police weren’t very helpful but I pulled a couple of strings and finally learned the name of our guy. He’s not on the force anymore. Seems he got into some other trouble they won’t talk about. Anyway, his name is Frank Garcia, he’s 37 years old and he still lives here in Deming. I don’t know what he does for a living but I’ve got an address.”
“Can we sweat him? Isn’t that you guys call it when you put someone under your hot lights?”
“Look Bob, we’ve got no evidence linking him to Gabriela’s death and I’d need a DNA swipe along with about four weeks to prove that he is the father of Gabriela’s child. And, fathering her child isn’t like killing her. There is no evidence at all that anyone killed her let alone anything that points to Garcia.”
“Was Garcia married at the time of Gabriela’s death? If he was it might explain what he might have done once Gabriela told him she was pregnant,” I blurted out. “Here’s my theory: Garcia and Gabby were having trysts about once a week for going on four maybe five months when she told him she was pregnant. Garcia knew that he’d lose his wife and his job … and he’d be charged with statutory rape if Gabby said anything. And, he knew she'd have to tell someone sooner or later. Even consensual sex with a 15 year old girl would mean hard time and a lot of it. He was a cop and he knew what that would mean.”
“I like your theory but how are we going to prove it. Unless Garcia confesses, and he won’t, or we can find an eye witness to her getting into his car or someone who saw them parked somewhere, it’s just a theory. I’ve not had a lotta luck looking for witnesses to 12 year old crimes. I’ll go have a talk with him and see what I can learn. But don’t have too high of hopes that I’ll learn anything though. I’ll give you a call in a week or so. Oh, I’ve arranged for her remains to be delivered to her parents. You might want to tell them that.”
Rob and I went back to see Gloria Sanchez and told her the remains were definitely Gabby. We grilled her: Who were their other friends? Who else knew about her relationship with the policeman? Who might have seen her get into the squad car on April 14th? Nothing. Gloria had already told us everything she knew.
I called and talked with Mrs. Gomez in hopes she would remember something now that we positively identified our Jane Doe as Gabriela Baca. Nope, she only remembered that Gabriela was there one day and gone the next. Who else might have seen them together?
Phil called and said he met Frank Garcia and talked about the disappearance of Gabriela Baca. Phil said, “Frank played dumb and didn’t admit to knowing any 15 year old girls back when he had the high school traffic watch. I never told him that we found her remains … only that we were looking for Gabriela. He was more curious about how I got his name than he was about a missing girl. He seemed to squirm beneath his skin when I talked about Gabriela. It was not what he said, which was nothing, it was his body language that made him look guilty as hell. If I were a betting man, I’d bet my next paycheck that he did it.”
“Can we do anything to smoke him out?” I asked knowing the answer.
“You could try but you’ll only get out of him what I already did. He’s guilty, I know he is, but we can’t prove it without a witness or some evidence.”
Rob and I drove to Palomas dreading our visit with Rosa and Manuel Baca. We arrived at dinner time and they were seated in their kitchen. They both joined us in the living room.
I told them that the remains were definitely Gabby and everything else we had learned along the way. I thought Manuel would hit me when I mentioned her pregnancy and her affair with the policeman. He quizzed me. “Who es dis snake who killed mi Gabriela?”
“We don’t know who for sure. But we do know the name of the policeman who was assigned those duties when she disappeared.”
“Tell me his name, por favor.”
“I can’t tell you until we know for sure that he did it.”
“How will joo know?”
I went on to explain our lack of evidence, no witnesses and our suspect’s denial of even having known Gabby.
“What are we going to do, señor? Wait another 12 years?”
“We don’t know. I’m thinking of running an ad in the paper with Gabby’s picture asking if anyone remembers her on that day. Outside of interviewing every student that left the building for lunch on April 14, 1998 I don’t know what else to do.
“That will take jeers. Just tell me his name, por favor.”
“Okay, but remember he’s only a suspect and we have no evidence that he did anything wrong. His name is Frank Garcia and he lives in Deming.”
“Gracias señor, joo are a good man.”
We said goodbye and headed home. Rob said, “Are you serious about looking for someone that saw the two of them together twelve years ago. That seems like a really long, long-shot. Do you remember what you did for lunch on April 14th 1998? No, and no one else does either. I think we’ve hit the wall. Let’s see what Phil thinks.”
Phil thanked us for our help and told us to feel proud that we had discovered and identified the remains, brought closure to her parents and put Gabriela into a proper grave. “That’s all we can do.”
“Yeah but, a killer … a killer that took the life of a young girl and her baby, is walking the streets because we aren’t smart enough to solve this puzzle.”
“I know, I know, but this isn’t Cold Case on TV. You’re just going to have to live with it. Thanks again … let’s have a beer every now and then just to keep in touch.”
We never saw Phil again but three months later I pulled the rubber band off of The Deming Headlight in my driveway and read:
Police were called to the home of Frank Garcia, 37, last night by a friend who stopped by only to find Mr. Garcia dead on the living room floor of his home and the door ajar. Mr. Garcia had been repeatedly stabbed and was thought to have died instantly from his numerous wounds. Police have begun a full scale investigation into what they’ve now labeled as a homicide.
Frank Garcia served on the Deming Police Force from 1996 to 1999 and was most recently a grounds maintenance man at the Mountain View Cemetery.
Bill Morris can be reached at email@example.com.
Manuel Baca wasn’t going to wait another 12 years.
©2010 by Bob Rockwell