JOPLIN, Mo. —
FBI agents and Albuquerque, N.M., police searched multiple properties owned by a Joplin man Tuesday in connection with an investigation into the remains of 11 women and teenagers and an unborn child discovered last year in Albuquerque.
Authorities searched at least three Joplin buildings that Jasper County records indicate are owned by Ron Erwin.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Erwin declined to comment about the searches.
“I can’t say anything at this point,” he said.
FBI agents and officers from what is known as the Albuquerque Police Department’s 118th Street Task Force searched Erwin’s photography business at 411 S. Main St. The task force was named because the bodies were found by authorities on a mesa adjacent to 118th Street in Albuquerque.
Officers, some clad in white jumpsuits, also searched a residence at 414 W. 26th St., and other officers searched a residence at 2518 S. Ohio Ave. Records indicate both homes are owned by Erwin.
Erwin also operates a health food store, Fox Farm Whole Food, 2639 E. 32nd St. On Tuesday morning, a Joplin officer was stationed outside the store and would say only that the business was closed and was expected to remain closed the rest of the day.
Albuquerque police spokeswoman Nadine Hamby acknowledged that sealed search warrants were executed Tuesday in Joplin, but she would not comment on the details. She also said no one was in custody.
Detective Tod Babcock, with the 118th Street Task Force, wearing a vest that said “Police, Violent Crimes,” told a Globe reporter Tuesday outside the photography studio on Main Street that Erwin is a “person of interest,” but he added that the Joplin man is only “one of many.”
Hamby later denied that the detective specifically named Erwin.
“We have never named anyone in the 118th Street (case),” Hamby said.
A phone message left for Erwin’s mother, Beulah Erwin, was not returned Tuesday.
Beulah Erwin told The Associated Press that her son used to regularly travel to Albuquerque for annual events, but that he had not done so for at least six years.
“It doesn’t make any sense why they would focus on him,” she said. “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard of.”
Neighbors who live near Ron Erwin’s home at 2518 S. Ohio Ave. said they last saw him at the property Sunday.
At Erwin’s photography studio, a large, unmarked trailer was parked, blocking one lane of northbound traffic for a while Tuesday.
The remains of the 11 women and teenagers and an unborn child were found in February 2009 after a woman spotted a large bone protruding from an earthen trail while she was walking her dog on Albuquerque’s west side.
Authorities have said nearly all the victims worked as prostitutes before they disappeared between 2003 and early 2005.
Albuquerque police Chief Ray Schultz had previously said that his department was investigating men who hired prostitutes and were prone to violence, according to The Associated Press.
Hamby said it did not appear that any of the victims had ties to the Joplin area, although she cautioned that they “lived a transient lifestyle.” Ten of the victims were born and raised in Albuquerque, while one of them, Syllannia Edwards, was from Oklahoma. Law enforcement personnel in Lawton, Okla., had classified her as an endangered runaway and reported her missing in 2003, according to the Albuquerque Police Department website.
Chris Hall, with the Lawton Police Department, said Edwards ran away from a juvenile lockup in Lawton, and he was assigned to investigate her disappearance. He said he was not aware of any connection between her and Joplin.
Erwin also previously owned The Book Barn, which was at 32nd and Main Streets, and Eccentrix, 2609 E. Seventh St. The latter store dealt in books, vintage clothing, music, movies and collectibles, and closed last month. At one time, Erwin owned stores in Springfield; Springdale, Ark.; and Tulsa and Bartlesville in Oklahoma.
Erwin said Eccentrix closed because it was no longer needed in the area with the ascent of online sites such as Amazon and eBay, and the popularity of digital books.
Metro Editor Andy Ostmeyer, Assistant Metro Editor Derek Spellman, staff writers Emily Younker, Roger McKinney and Greg Grisolano, and Alexandra Nicolas contributed to this report.
The Albuquerque Police Department website states that a reward of up to $100,000 is being offered for information about the victims and potential suspects. The case also was featured on the television series “America’s Most Wanted.”