Investigators still searching for identity of teenager murdered in Dona Ana County in 1985

Sketch of woman found dead near Upham, New Mexico. (KFOX14)

More than 30 years ago, hunters discovered the remains of a teenage girl in the New Mexico desert.

To this day, we don’t know who she is.

But one dedicated detective continues to search for her identity.

KFOX14 Chief Investigative Reporter Genevieve Curtis discovered why it so hard to find the missing.

The year was 1985.

Found off a dusty dirt road was a gruesome discovery.

“March 10,1985, there are three men out in the desert northwest of Las Cruces,” said retired Dona Ana County investigator, Ben Venable.

“They find the remains of a young lady in a shallow grave,” said Venable.

She, was a white female, approximately 16 to 19 years old. Murdered.

Buried in a garbage bag. Dumped in the desert.

The medical examiner estimated she had been buried there for for three to six months.

She was found in a remote area near Upham, New Mexico, 20 miles east of Hatch.

Sheriff's investigator Don Wilkins was one of the first to respond to the crime scene.

“This case bothered him tremendously,” said Venable.

His son in law, Venable, later picked up the case.

“This is a little girl that somebody murdered, for whatever reason and buried her like a dead animal out in the desert,” said Venable.

Venable is now retired too, but still works this haunting case

“It's the case you never forget,” he said.

So much of this story is still a mystery.

“We don't know where she's from. We don't know who she is. We don't know where she might have been reported missing from,” said Kelly Jameson, a spokesperson for the Dona Ana County Sheriffs Office.

And, how did she end up entombed in the sun-bleached desert?

The puzzle is incomplete but what investigators know is this: she had blonde hair, designer clothes and like so many teenage girls she had a preference for pink.

She also appeared to be in good health with good dental work, which makes investigators believe she wasn't a drifter.

“She's cared for by somebody, absolutely,” said Venable.

By the time she was found in the unforgiving elements, little was left of Upham girl.

A clay reconstruction shows what she may have looked like in life.

An artist sketch gives another picture.

But what they still don't have, is a name.

“It’s almost impossible to believe that this girl went missing and nobody knows who she is,” said Jameson.

Venable is searching for the family missing Jane Doe.

“Its not every day that you have a cop that retires and then still wants to work a case like this, but that's Ben,” said Jameson.

Late at night, he scans databases.

“Until the wee hours of the morning,” said Venable.

Thousands of faces stare back at him.

“I’ve looked at many, many and I still look at them,” said Venable.

Face after face of unknown fate.

“There are a lot of missing people in this country. How do you make that many people disappear?” said Venable.

If there's a family looking for Jane Doe, they don't know a detective in New Mexico is searching for them.

He doesn't know if anyone is still looking for Jane.

“She didn't just fall out of the atmosphere,” said Venable.

That disconnect is due largely to do with a black hole in the national database.

In 1985 federal law did not require missing children reports to be entered into a national database.

That happened in 1990.

“If this girl went missing from a small community with a small law enforcement agency, there was no requirement to enter that information,” said Jameson.

Agencies aren't required to upload cases from before the law went into effect.

“(Her case) could be on a shelf somewhere. That’s what makes connecting the dots so difficult,” said Jameson.

To this day, no federal law requires missing persons reports for missing adults to be entered into the national crime databass, NCIC.

Texas and New Mexico do have laws requiring investigators do that, but not every state does.

“The system isn't perfect,” said Venable.

The NCIC database is only for law enforcement officials but a database called NAMUS, The National Missing and Unidentified Person’s system

run by the National Institute of Justice is open to the public.

“I’ve searched many, many, young ladies on there,” said Venable.

There are more than 25,000 missing persons cases in NAMUS.

New ones are added every day, from different decades.

Which keeps Venable combing through cases.

“Somebody on this planet knows something, I just don’t think we've reached them at this point,” said Venable.

NAMUS also contains a database of more than 14,000 unidentified bodies.

There are thousands of Jane and John Does.

More than 1,400 in Texas, 108 in New Mexico and more than 30 in the Borderland.

One of them is Upham girl.

Venable has checked her DNA against the DNA of more than two dozen girls who went missing before 1985.

“No matches,” he said.

Venable took KFOX14 to the shallow grave where that young woman was dumped in a garbage bag.

“I think about her when I’m out here all the time,” said Venable.

He often thinks of what her last thoughts must have been.

“Maybe as she’s dying this young lady is thinking, ‘At least, I hope they catch them,’” said Venable.

“We don’t have any answers for her,” he said.

Hoping to solve the mystery, he often visits the place she was buried.

“Every chance I get,” he said.

Looking across the vast desert, he still hunts for hints.

“You always hope something will come through. Something you least expect,” Venable explained.

His aim is justice, but more than anything, he wants to know her name.

“That young lady needs to have a name on a headstone and to be buried properly,” he said.

And hopefully he can bring closure to a family.

“She was, still, born into a family that loved her very much,” said Jameson.

After all, she was somebody's daughter.

Congress has tried several times to pass legislation requiring missing adults and unidentified bodies be entered into a national database. Those attempts have failed.

The Dona Ana County Sheriff’s Office continues to investigate this case as a homicide. Investigators know how she was killed but those details are not being released to the public.

They do have several leads they'd like to explore, but the priority is to identify Upham girl.

If you have any information on this case, call DASO at (575) 525-1911.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off