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Uncovering The Dark Past Of Santa Fe: Can DNA Evidence Solve These Mysteries?

Miranda Archuleta, Author

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In the 1980s, Santa Fe was plagued by the slaying and disappearance of numerous young women. Though some of the crimes were solved and the killers prosecuted, the majority of the crimes remain unsolved.

Throughout this time, which was known as “the decade of fear,” approximately twelve women went missing in the Santa Fe area. While some of their bodies were recovered, some of the women were never found.

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, some of these cases are now being re-examined by Santa Fe Police detectives Tony Trujillo and Jimmie Montoya with the hope that improved DNA systems — and an increase in funding from the state — will allow some of these cases to be solved.

Although all of these cases are both shocking and fascinating, two cases in particular continue to baffle police: the cases of Tamara Britton and Teal Pittington.

The fascinating aspect of Britton’s case is not the known, but the unknown. She had only lived in Santa Fe for eight months before disappearing. Britton had no medical records or photos, and those who knew her only remembered her as being short and blond, which made the possibility of identifying her body, if it were found, virtually impossible.

In addition, almost all of the information from her employment applications and other documents was false. Upon contacting her “father,” investigators found that she had stolen the identity of a child that had passed away as a baby and used that information to get a Social Security card.

Although her unknown identity poses a major complication in the investigation of her disappearance, it is believed that she may have been in the Witness Protection Program—possibly for involvement in a murder.

Shortly after the Britton’s disappearance, her former roommate, Teal Pittington, also disappeared.

Pittington’s case is equally fascinating. Pittington, 18, went missing just a few days after Britton’s disappearance. She was last seen on August 15, 1984, and her body was found nine months later in a culvert south of the New Mexico Girls Ranch. She had been strangled with her own bra.

Detectives have two prime suspects for the murder of Pittington: her former boyfriend, Marion Owen Jent, and David Morton, a man who had pled guilty to the murders of two other Santa Fe women in 2004.

Jent was considered a suspect due to his relationship with Pittington, which spanned a year, and the fact that several days after her disappearance he was seen driving her car. Upon taking a polygraph test, however, no useful information about Pittington’s death or Britton’s disappearance was obtained, and deception was not detected.

David Morton is also considered a suspect because of his criminal past. In 2004 he pled guilty to the murders of two Santa Fe women, Jane Benoit and Teri Mulvaney. One of the women was strangled, like Pittington had been.

When questioned about Pittington, Morton claimed that he had a friend who might know about her death. This “friend” had dated Pittington and had a criminal record in New Mexico, but at this time was not considered a suspect for her murder.

Like the major setback of Britton’s unknown identity in her disappearance, a wrench has been thrown into Pittington’s case: The bra that she was strangled with is missing, so even if enough evidence were uncovered to test the DNA of one of the suspects, there would be nothing to compare the samples to.

Despite the numerous aspects of the Pittington and Britton cases that link them together — the two had been roommates, they had lived with the same man, they dated the same man (Jent) and disappeared within days of each other — no physical evidence links Britton’s disappearance to Pittington’s death.

Though the cases of Britton and Pittington are the most pressing and seem to be the main focus of Santa Fe’s cold-case detectives at the moment, there were other strange cases that emerged in the “decade of fear.”

Cases that have been solved include Jane Benoit, Teri Mulvaney and Tracy Barker.

Jane Benoit, 22, died in November of 1983. She had stayed the night at a hotel in Santa Fe while moving from Colorado to Arizona, but the next morning a maid discovered her body. She had been raped and stabbed more than 30 times. Her case was solved in 2003 when David Bruce Morton confessed to the murder.

Morton also confessed to killing his neighbor, Teri Mulvaney, 25, in June of 1984. He raped and strangled her in her apartment on Galisteo Street.

Tracy Barker, 24, died in May of 1989. She was found dead in an undeveloped area of Richards Avenue. Her murder went unsolved for 15 years until DNA samples were tested and matched to the serial rapist Chris McClendon.

The remaining cases of Susan LaPorte, Roberta Michelle Montoya, Michelle Quintana, Annette Gonzales, Beverly Ann Riccio and Gloria Mares have remained unsolved for a variety of reasons.

Susan LaPorte, 25, died in December of 1985. She went missing while she was in Santa Fe visiting a friend. Her body was found in an arroyo behind what is now The Lodge of Santa Fe Hotel. Investigators have not been able to match her DNA with any suspect.

Roberta Michelle Montoya, 20, died in July of 1986. She had moved to Santa Fe in March and was reported missing in late July. Montoya was found the following April on Old Las Vegas Highway. Investigators were unable to determine her cause of death.

Michelle Quintana, 23, disappeared in August of 1987. Though detectives believe she had been kidnapped and murdered by a cocaine dealer she had been buying drugs from, these claims are unconfirmed as her body has never been found.

Annette Gonzales,19, was last seen in July of 1989. Her remains were found in January of 1990 when search teams uncovered her remains by Bobcat Road, not far from the area where Roberta Michelle Montoya’s remains were found. No other advancements have been made in her case.

Beverly Ann Riccio, 33, died in November of 1981. Riccio was found dead in her apartment the day after Thanksgiving. She had been stabbed 16 times, and although detectives had been able to identify her killer, the suspect died before he could be prosecuted.

Gloria Mares, 25, died in August of 1986. A mother of three, she was last seen by her family that month. In July of 1987 her remains were found in La Cienega. She had been shot in the head. Though the killer was identified, both he and the two witnesses of Mares’ killing died before he could be prosecuted.

These cases hit home for physics teacher Ms. Nugent, who has taught at Santa Fe High since 1989 and was living in Santa Fe during most of the decade of fear. She recalls that Santa Feans were not necessarily afraid, but were concerned, which compelled them to be more careful and aware of their surroundings.

Ms. Nugent learned about most of these cases by listening to the news, but some she found out about because their bodies had been dumped near her home. The remains of three women were found along I-25 about a mile from her house.

“It is amazing that that many people can disappear — and still disappear — without people knowing where they are,” said Ms. Nugent.

She explained that the case that stood out most in her mind was the baffling case of Tara Calico, 19, who went missing in September of 1988 while riding her bike on a rural highway south of Belen. Though her case was never solved, the year following her disappearance, a Polaroid photo of a boy and girl that were bound and gagged was found in the parking lot of a convenience store.

Calico’s family believe that the girl in the picture was Tara because of a striking resemblance and a scar on the girl’s leg that was identical to Tara’s. However, these claims could not be confirmed even after a photo analysis was done by Scotland Yard, Los Alamos National Labs, and the FBI.

Calico’s case was by far the most publicized, receiving substantial coverage on TV shows including A Current Affair, Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted. It was also profiled on 48 Hours and The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Science teacher Mr. Graham also recalls these cases. He said they were unusual because “In Santa Fe around that time stuff like that just didn’t happen.” He also thought it was strange that a whole string of murders happened in the same time frame, which leads him to believe one person may be responsible. He believes this person might’ have been passing through town, murdered these women, and then moved along.

This may seem to be an issue of the past, but even today with major advancements in DNA and other forensic technology, many crimes remain unsolved, which begs the question, why do these types of crimes continue to go unsolved?

It’s a loaded question with a loaded answer.

Perhaps the number of unsolved cases continues to increase due to the steady number of crimes that are committed on a daily basis — there are more crimes being committed than can be solved. Another possibility is a lack of funding for law enforcement, which hinders their ability to investigate and solve crimes. Unsolved cases even trace back to issues with the processing of DNA, as many rape kits and DNA samples remain on shelves, untested for decades at a time.

Attempts are being made to rectify these issues, however. Recently, New Mexico lawmakers and Governor Martinez approved as additional $1.2 million in funding to clear the statewide backlog of more than 5,400 rape kits, some of which date back to the 1980s. Approximately 350 of these kits are from Santa Fe victims.

The key to uncovering the perpetrator(s) involved in these murders may be within the DNA samples, which can be compared to those already logged in the national database in addition to many others.

As long as detectives Tony Trujillo and Jimmie Montoya continue to investigate these crimes and make advances in their investigations, the possibility of finding and prosecuting the individuals responsible remains alive.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Uncovering The Dark Past Of Santa Fe: Can DNA Evidence Solve These Mysteries?”

  1. Gary Johnson Santa Fe Police Detective Captain, Retired on July 16th, 2018 3:03 pm

    I had the honor of starting the Santa Fe Police Cold Case Unit in which our detectives were able to solve the Benoit, Mulvaney cases and contribute to the Barker case being solved. As a former Santa Fe High School Student (Class of 1983) I appreciate the article. Anytime someone writes about the victims of our unsolved crimes it helps keep their cases alive. On Sunday, July 29, 2018, the Santa Fe, New Mexican ran a memorial obituary of Annette Gonzales who’s murder still remains unsolved.
    It was the 30th anniversary of her disappearance and possibly death. Again, Thank you again for a very well written and informative article.

    Gary J. Johnson, Captain, Retired SFPD

    [Reply]

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Uncovering The Dark Past Of Santa Fe: Can DNA Evidence Solve These Mysteries?