The fingernail

by Pari


It’s strange what’ll break down a person’s defenses.

The fingernail got me. That scrap of keratin, the bright pink acrylic polish in two half moons that — to my eyes — formed the top of a heart. The nail, magnified several times, flecked with specs of dirt from a young identified woman’s last resting place.

The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) released the picture last Friday with the hope that someone, somewhere, will recognize the artwork and help them put a name to the victim. Last Friday was also the day that APD announced it’d no longer be digging at what is now known as the country’s largest crime scene area. Close to one hundred acres, eleven bodies and a fetus, dirt and dust and rocks all on the west side of our city — a burial ground of horrific magnitude — a barren monument to the kind of sorrow parents should never, ever have to know.

The “West Mesa Mystery,” as it has now been packaged by the media, began to unfold in mid Feburary this year when a jogger found human bones in the middle of a large tract of land surrounded by newer subdivisions. There’s a lot of this kind of unused space in Albuquerque, a fast-growing city with a marvelous climate and an amazingly steady/low unemployment rate (compared with the rest of the country).

Soon the bones of one person became two, three, four . . .

Of the seven young women identified so far, all had had difficult lives, had taken bad turns into drug use and prostitution. In the early days of the investigation, debates raged. People were angry that the victims’ lives had been negatively characterized and profiled. The police countered with the fact that they needed to find common links between the dead, a way to understand why all of them had been dumped in those crude graves around 2004-2005.

And the police needed to identify the remaining four victims.

Hundreds of parents from around the country had contacted APD, desperate to know if those bones could be one of their missing children — gone around the same time period, maybe sending a postcard from Albuquerque . . .

Though I’m a writer and a mother, I cannot and don’t want to imagine their pain, the emptiness of not knowing.

I don’t want to and cannot imagine the utter life-shattering moment when someone calls to say that it’s your daughter’s bones crime scene workers have uncovered under the hot New Mexico sun.

So I did what most people do. I let myself watch the news about the women — there’s been something almost every night since the discovery — without permitting myself to think too much of the suffering and misery that went along with the stories.

It was easy to do in a way. Though the interviews with parents were sad, they were other people’s pain. All the pictures of the identified victims showed the women when they’d been happy and alive. It was easy . . . convenient  . . . to be detached.

It was the same thing that happens with other mindboggling tragedies: Darfur, the Holocaust . . .

Then came the fingernail.
That small piece of decorated protein.

And all my rationalizations and comfortable distancing crashed down.

I look at my children differently now, at the promise of their youth and want to scream, “None of those West Mesa victims deserved their heartbreaking brevity! None!”

To think that an entire life, a young woman’s whole identity, comes down to one fingernail.

It saddens me to my very core.


If you want to know more about the West Mesa Mystery, America’s Most Wanted did a good job last Saturday night (April 25).

And, for heaven’s sake, if you — or anyone you know — has any information, please call the APD hotline at 1-877-765-8273; the line is staffed 24/7.

16 thoughts on “The fingernail

  1. Jake Nantz

    Wow. That really does stop you in your tracks, doesn’t it? I haven’t heard anything about this in NC, but then I don’t watch the news as much as my wife does. Regardless, it’s hard to turn the crime writer ("Hey, anything there to spark a story?") off and look at the reality of it. Those girls didn’t deserve the end that they got, and someone out there may end up getting away with this unless something shakes loose. It’s very saddening to see young people swallowed up by the system only to be spit back out so unceremoniously. Just sad.

  2. Pari

    Yeah, at first I was very clinical about it. Then I started thinking as a writer and wondering if there were stories in there that I might want to try to tell. I stayed in that place until last Friday night when they showed that damn nail . . .

    This case has been so hard on the police force and families — and all of those other families hoping and afraid that their daughter might be one of the four yet to be identified.

    I hope the police catch the person — or people — who did this.

  3. Pari

    I’m with you on that.

    I’m the kind of person who goes in the other direction rather than gawk at an accident. Voyeurism isn’t my cup of tea. But this story has been non-stop in ABQ. Still, I avoided thinking "far too much" for quite a while.

    Again, I think that the fingernail is a much more personal "artifact" than bones; it’s something we don’t normally see with murder cases. The mere smallness of it makes a huge statement.

  4. Louise Ure

    I saw the story on the news over the weekend, but like you, Pari, it wasn’t brought home until I saw that fingernail. As shattering as that image is, it’s what makes that story personal. Just like the very best of crime writing.

  5. toni mcgee causey

    God, that’s just heartbreaking. I had not been following the story, and that was a cold knife to the heart this morning. The horrible end, the pain of the unknown… just really puts things into perspective right damned fast, doesn’t it? I hope, for the sake of the loved ones, the remaining identities can be discovered soon.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    In tragedies like this, it’s always the small human things that get to you. I think part of the mind shuts down from such enormity as a form of self-protection.

    The pictures of the mushroom clouds over Nagasaki and Hiroshima do not have as much impact as the shots of individual victims, broken toys, melted household items.

    The enduring image I have of the Vietnam war is a picture of a little girl running naked and crying along a road, her clothing burned away by napalm.

    When we visited New York in the aftermath of 9/11 and went to see Ground Zero, I was able to view the giant hole in the ground from an almost-detached perspective. It was the single paper crane tied to the fencing that made me weep.

  7. JT Ellison

    Pari, you know how fascinated I am with this story – it’s like the world in my head came alive in your town. I was just starting to think about a book that has these components when the stories first broke.

    I know one of my biggest motivators is the idea that somehow, some way, I’m giving justice to those who don’t get it. It’s the only thing I can do to sleep at night.

  8. Pari

    Sorry for that dagger. I thought long and hard about whether to post this . . . but that fingernail wouldn’t get out of my mind.

    Like you, I hope the other four are identified soon. The not-knowing . . . Oh, how that must sear.

  9. Pari

    It’s absolutely true. Those little things are far more poignant for most of us. Perhaps it’s because the mind shuts down or perhaps it’s simply that the size reminds us of how fragile life is.

  10. Pari

    I have another article for you (BTW).

    I think that what you do with your fiction is indeed to give voice to those who might otherwise remain silent. I know you’ve done it in the past. I hope you do write a version of this story; these women need some kind of justice.

  11. Allison Brennan

    I think that one reason we choose to write crime fiction is to bring justice to the world. In fiction, the guilty are punished, the innocent are avenged, and the world comes into balance. Because in real life, there is so much heartbreak and tragedy that we have to do something, and some of us have no heroic skills, we’re not cops, or lawyers, or doctors, or or in a position to DO something. So we use what small talent we do have to create a world where justice is served.

    I had heard a bit about this tragedy, but had been following our own local story here in northern california where a female teacher is accused of brutalizing and murdering an 8 year old girl.

    I’d always felt as you did, Pari, that it’s "someone else’s child" and I can watch with horrified but curious detachment crime scenes unfold in the media. Until I witnessed live testimony by parents of murdered children during a legislative public safety hearing. When you hear it in person–without the flat tv screen or commentary–it suddenly makes it real. I think that people don’t want to hear the stories from parents because they fear that somehow that pain is going to rub off, that maybe violence is catching. Society marginalizes survivors because we’re scared. I think John Walsh has done the country a great service in America’s Most Wanted. He’s hard but compassionate, dedicated and driven, and if you’ve heard his story, you know that he still has great pain–but he’s turned it around to do good for others.

    Amazing post, Pari.

  12. kit

    I’m not exactly sure how to put this ,so it makes sense….but what always surprises me…is when the perpetrator is caught, in something so horrific, it isn’t the face of a monster that I see.
    It’s usually, someone quite ordinary or maybe kind of *dweebish*, when I’m expecting something bigger than life or something other than what it is…something that might make the senseless, make sense in some way.
    I have a friend who works as a federal cop, and she continually tells me, it’s not the stuff *out there*, we have to worry about…it’s the crazy next door.

  13. Pari

    The old "He was a nice boy," stuff that we always hear from neighbors amazes me still. You’re absolutely right about the crazy next door.

    You said it beautifully.


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