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New Mexico Mom Looking for Love Is Found in Desert Weeks after Disappearing from Her Home
Dawn Sandoval was having fun dating after a traumatic divorce, but her quest for love would ultimately end in tragedy.
New Mexico nurse Dawn Sandoval longed for the love of a lifetime. But her quest to find love again after two failed marriages, and a devastating betrayal would cost the mom of four boys the ultimate price.
On May 5, 2018, Sandoval’s charred body was discovered partially buried in the New Mexico desert by a passing motorcyclist, according to Killer Relationship with Faith Jenkins. It was the heartbreaking conclusion to her family’s desperate search to find the missing mom.
It would also be one of the final pieces of the puzzle investigators would need to take down her killer.
“My friend was gone. Her boys weren’t going to have her anymore, her mom wasn’t going to have her anymore,” friend Lisa Herrera said of the discovery. “It was very heartbreaking.”
In life, Sandoval had been known for her vibrant and encouraging personality, strong work ethic, and dedication to her boys.
“Dawn was an absolute positive person,” friend Thomas Trujillo remembered. “She loved to have fun and she loved to be with her friends.”
She grew up in Las Vegas, New Mexico. It was there, according to Herrera, that she met the “first love of her life” Rick.
The high school sweethearts got married shortly after graduation and Rick joined the National Guard. Before long, the couple had welcomed three boys of their own, but tragedy struck when their youngest son, Jonathan, died at 10 months old. He had been stuck between the mattress and the railing of the crib.
“After Jonathan passed it drove a huge wedge between her and Rick,” Trujillo recalled. “Things were not in a good space.”
The grief of losing his youngest child, combined with trauma experienced while fighting in the Gulf War, was too much for Rick, who openly struggled with his personal demons. The stress eventually tore the couple apart five years after they married.
But by the summer of 1999, Dawn was ready to give love another shot. When she was introduced by a friend to electrician Mike Encinias, she found herself drawn to his captivating blue eyes and solid work ethic. “Mike was definitely smitten with her, definitely,” friend Krista Sena Gold recalled.
They married the next year and had a set of twin boys of their own.
“It seemed like Dawn was finally getting what she deserved, a good man for her kids, a good man for her. It was like a perfect relationship,” Hererra said.
But cracks in the relationship were exposed when, nine years into their marriage, Dawn learned that Encinias was having an affair.
Although devastated, she agreed to forgive him and give the marriage another shot, but it wasn’t the end of his roving eye. In 2017, on Sandoval’s 46th birthday, Encinias told her he was leaving her for a much younger woman he’d met at a casino.
Within a few months, Sandoval was divorced and ready to find love again.
“She was going out, she was having fun, she was dating,” Gold said.
Sandoval began using dating sites, despite the cautions from her friends. “She had registered on some dating websites. We would tell her, you better be careful, you go on these dates, you don’t know who you’re going to meet up with,” friend Tom Gonzales recalled.
Sandoval met Billy, a captain at a sheriff’s office about 80 miles away who friends say she was “smitten” with. Plus, there was another man named Anthony.
It seemed like life was finally turning around for Sandoval. But on the morning of April 16, 2018, her twin boys woke up to find she was nowhere in the home. When they returned home from school later that day and still couldn’t find their mother — who had left behind both of her cars and cell phone — they called their aunt Anita Sandoval, who placed a call to 911.
“This is not like her. Both her cars are here, her purse is here,” Anita told Rio Rancho Police officers after they’d arrived, according to body cam footage. “We’ve talked to everybody that she talks to and nobody has seen her.”
Investigators began by looking into the men in Sandoval’s life and learned that in addition to the two men she’d met online, Sandoval had also been toying with the idea of getting back together with Encinias.
The couple’s twins told police the pair had spent the entire weekend together before they went up to Sandoval’s room around 10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. the night of April 15, 2018. The next day, both were gone.
Encinias admitted the couple had been together that night, but said he left the home around midnight, after Sandoval told him that she wanted to take any possible reconciliation slowly. He told police he texted her as soon as he got home.
“Dawn, I had a great time with you,” he texted her at 12:29 a.m. “I hope we can work things out. I love you.”
Police also looked into the two other men in Sandoval’s life, but Billy — who told police he had been at home 80 miles away — and Anthony both said that while Sandoval had wanted to pursue a deeper relationship, neither man had wanted a more serious commitment with her.
“Anthony told her good luck to you, which was substantiated by her texts,” said Aaron Brown, a former detective with the Rio Rancho Police Department.
Authorities turned their focus back to Encinias and learned that just four days before she disappeared, Sandoval had called 911 to report his girlfriend Stephanie was driving their twin sons after smoking marijuana.
Stephanie had been pulled over, arrested for driving under the influence, and sent to jail on some unrelated outstanding misdemeanor warrants. She was still behind bars at the time of the disappearance, but authorities looked into whether it could have been a motive for her disappearance.
They also set out to check Encinias' alibi for the night his ex-wife disappeared and made an interesting discovery. Although surveillance footage in his neighborhood did show him returning to his home around 12:40 a.m. that night, it also revealed he left eight minutes later. He didn’t return until 2:51 a.m.
“His phone was at home, but his truck and he are out,” Brown said.
Then on May 5, 2018, a biker noticed an arm with a sleeve of tattoos protruding from the ground in an isolated stretch of desert west of Rio Rancho. The body — which was later confirmed to belong to Sandoval — had been set on fire.
The discovery gave police enough evidence to obtain probable cause warrants to search Encinias’ truck, as well as his DNA and fingerprints.
While examining his truck they discovered a small nickel size blood stain that would later be linked to Sandoval.
Six months after she disappeared, authorities took the case to a grand jury and got an indictment.
“That night at Dawn’s house, Mike was attempting to push their relationship back to what he had before and she rebuffed him and something snapped,” Lt. Frank Tomlinson said of authorities theory of the crime.
Investigators believe Encinias smothered Sandoval in a moment of passion with some pillows in her bedroom, then wrapped her up in the bed sheets, remade the bed by pulling the comforter up and then loaded her into the car. He briefly returned home to leave his cell phone, then dumped her body in the desert and set it on fire, Brown said.
“It’s one thing for somebody to take somebody’s life, but to go to the extreme to set that person on fire, that was a different type of evil that we had never seen before,” Brown said.
Encinias was convicted of second degree murder in August 2019 and was sentenced to 18 years behind bars.
Killer Relationship with Faith Jenkins airs Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated, in one reference, that Aaron Brown, not Mike Encinias, was convicted of second-degree murder. Brown worked as an investigator on the case. The story has been updated.