1994 cold case finally closed
Helen Torres Chavez disappeared in 1987. Her bones were found in 1994 — but they waited to be positively identified until 2012. Now, new DNA-testing technology has provided the answers to most of the questions surrounding her case.
In July of 2012, Magdalena Marshal Chief Larry Cearley closed the investigation into Chavez’s disappearance because the human remains found in 1994 matched her DNA and the one suspect in her disappearance is now deceased.
Gilbert Espinosa, who died of a gangrene infection, was the last person seen with Chavez when she had attended a dance at the Magdalena Old Timers Reunion on July 12, 1987. Her son saw her leave the dance with Gilbert Espinosa and go to the town’s West Bar, where they continued to party. An eyewitness saw them get into an argument, according to a report provided to the Chieftain by Cearley.
After Espinosa and Chavez left the bar, her family did not see her alive again. A lead in the case did not pop up until almost seven years later in 1994 when a hiker stumbled across some human remains in the Magdalena area.
In March of that year, while walking in the area near Mile Marker 2 of N.M. 169, Juan Gutierrez came across a gray plastic purse, some women’s clothing and a pair of shoes on the ground. He looked around the area, trying to find to whom they belonged. Instead, he found some bones and a partial skull, bleached white from exposure to the sun, several hundred feet away from the road.
Gutierrez called law enforcement and Officer Donovan Gurley of the New Mexico State Police filed the report. The purse had no identifying papers or wallet. When Floyd Turpin, of the Office of the Medical Investigator of Socorro, performed an autopsy of the bones, he concluded they had probably been out there for about two years.
According to an article in a March 1994 edition of the Chieftain, investigators believed the death of the then-unknown person was due to foul play. At the time, investigators went to Chavez’s sister, who identified the shoes found at the sight as the same ones she had lent Chavez to wear to the Old Timers dance in 1987.
However, no positive identification of the remains could be made at the time, according to the article.
The case went cold because even though DNA evidence existed on the bones, police had no way of testing them. The level of technology of “DNA identification was just being introduced to identify a match from bones to a person,” according to the report.
In February 2010, Cearley sent a letter to the Office of the Medical Investigator, an agency that investigates deaths in which the reason is unknown. He requested documentation on the remains found in the desert in 1994 to find the identity of the person, according to the report.
Two years later, he requested assistance from the FBI to gather DNA from the family members of Chavez. In July 2012, Cearley received a report of examination from June, stating the remains found in the desert were those of Chavez.
She was identified through mitochondrial DNA, which is a genetic code that’s passed down from the mother. This code is the same in the mother and the child and means a high chance of being related exists when two people share the same mitochondria.