Police remain quiet as investigation into 11 New Mexico desert deaths wraps up in Missouri

The FBI and police on Wednesday appeared to wrap up searches in southwest Missouri that were done in connection with an investigation into the deaths of 11 women and a fetus found buried in the New Mexico desert last year.

FBI agents and Albuquerque police officers on Tuesday searched two homes and at least one business owned by 57-year-old Ron Erwin, a health food store owner and travel photographer from Joplin. Erwin has not been arrested nor charged with any crimes, and Albuquerque police won't acknowledge whether he is a suspect or a person of interest.

On Wednesday, two agents from the FBI's Kansas City office packed boxes of documents and other evidence into a trailer outside the Joplin police department. But no law enforcement activity was seen outside Erwin's homes or downtown photography shop.

Erwin's Fox Farm Whole Foods store was open for business Wednesday. Police had closed it Tuesday while serving multiple search warrants, which were sealed.

"I'm not hiding," Erwin said in a brief telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I'm right here."

He spoke from the health food store, which he's owned since 1993. But Erwin declined to discuss the police investigation.

Authorities have said nearly all the dead women worked as prostitutes before they disappeared between 2003 to early 2005. Hikers discovered the first set of remains in early 2009, and the final victim was identified in January. Two of the victims were 15 years old when they disappeared.

An online travel diary listed in Erwin's name shows a trip to New Mexico in June 2007. He also listed numerous trips since 2007 to Ecuador, India and Vietnam. His mother told the AP that Erwin used to regularly travel to Albuquerque but was adamant that her son was not involved in any wrongdoing.

Erwin is a well-known small businessman in Joplin, a city of 50,000 near Missouri's border with Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma. He grew up in the town and returned soon after graduating from the University of Missouri in Columbia with an English degree in 1974.

By 1980, he had opened the Book Barn, a used bookstore that also traded in baseball cards and comic books. Erwin later sold that store and opened Eccentrix, which featured books and records as well as vintage clothing and other collectibles. That store closed in July. Acquaintances said he planned to open a costume shop later this year.

Daniel Valdez of Albuquerque, whose 26-year-old daughter's remains were among those found buried on the city's west mesa last year, had mixed feelings to news of the Missouri searches.

"I hope that the evidence that they've accumulated over there is another piece to the puzzle or maybe even a final piece to the puzzle," he said.

Michelle Valdez was last seen alive on Sept. 22, 2004. She told her sister she was going to California, but when the family did not hear from her, her father filed a missing person's report in February 2005. She was pregnant when she died, and fetal bones were found with her skeleton.

All but one of the victims were born or raised in Albuquerque. Fifteen-year-old runaway Syllania Edwards was from Lawton, Oklahoma, which is about 300 miles from Joplin.

Daniel Valdez said the women's families last met with Albuquerque police in April, when a new sergeant took over a task force working on the investigation. The investigator assured the families the team was researching all the tips and clues it received and would continue until the case was solved, Valdez said.

The officer offered no specifics so as not to jeopardize the case, but Valdez said he could live with that.

"I would much rather it take a little longer ... rather than get our hopes up and our hopes get down again," he said.


Associated Press Writer Sue Major Holmes contributed to this report from Albuquerque, N.M.