Image: Orange County District Attorney Frank Phillips
Chet Gordon  /  Times Herald-Record via AP
Orange County District Attorney Frank Phillips, right, described the operation seeking Laura Garza's remains as "the most intensive search mission I have ever seen."
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/9/2010 5:39:30 AM ET 2010-12-09T10:39:30

Prosecutors on Wednesday charged a sex offender with killing an aspiring dancer who vanished two years ago after leaving a New York City nightclub with him.

An indictment charges Michael Mele with murder, manslaughter and evidence tampering in the death of Laura Garza, 25, of Brooklyn. He could face 25 years to life in prison if he's convicted of murder.

He's accused of killing her in Orange County, N.Y., northwest of New York City. Garza's skeletal remains were found in April in the woods in Mount Cobb, Pa., after what Orange County District Attorney Frank Phillips called "the most intensive search mission I have ever seen."

Garza had been missing since Dec. 3, 2008, when surveillance cameras at the Manhattan nightspot Marquee caught her leaving with Mele. They were also seen a couple of hours later a few miles from Mele's home in Wallkill.

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Mele, always the prime suspect, is already serving time for violating his parole as a sex offender. Defense lawyer John Ingrassia would not comment.

"I hope it brings some relief to the family, but we have explained to them that an indictment is not a conviction," said Phillips.

"We're pleased with the result," Garza's cousin Isela Villalobos of McAllen, Texas, said by phone. "It's been two long years. There's a sense of relief that the New York state police department and the district attorney have done their job."

"We think about her every day," Villalobos said. "This Christmas will be another difficult Christmas."

Mele had several sex-offense convictions in New York, most involving approaching women while masturbating, and he was wanted in New Jersey for similar crimes. He was denied release in March by a board that cited his "history of sexually deviant behavior."

Mele refused to talk about Garza as he became the focus of the investigation. He was quickly locked up on a parole violation, and a body check revealed scratches and a possible bite mark on him.

Mele allegedly hid carpet pieces, a car mat and Garza's body in an effort to keep them from becoming trial evidence, said Phillips.

At Mele's apartment, police found patches of carpet that had been cut away. They searched his vehicle and carried away bags of evidence for testing.

Video: Woman vanishes from NYC nightclub (on this page)

But there was no sign of Garza, who had dreams of becoming a dancer. She had moved to New York City from McAllen five months before she disappeared.

As many as 200 firefighters, police officers and volunteers spent days searching in Orange and Sullivan counties in upstate New York. Officers looked through Mele's apartment complex, the woods and fields around it, septic systems and trash bins, and the roads and highways nearby. Divers went under the ice covering a lake.

Garza's brothers, Ivan and Nicolas, came east from Texas and posted "missing" signs with their sister's picture. When the search reached the one-month and one-year marks, they held vigils for her in Manhattan.

Hope that Garza would be found alive gradually evaporated.

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On April 11, 2010, a group of ATV riders found what police described as "an intact skeleton" in Mount Cobb, Pa., several miles outside of Scranton. Police said a watch that Garza was wearing when she disappeared was found on the remains and DNA tests confirmed the identity.

The cause of death was not made public.

No trial date has been set. Mele could be arraigned next week.

The New York Times reported that Mele was convicted of forcibly touching women and of public lewdness in 2006 and 2007.

In November 2009, he was sentenced to one to three years in prison for violating the terms of his probation in that case, according to the newspaper.

An official with the State Department of Correctional Services told the Times that Mele had been scheduled to be released on Dec. 24. However, that will now not occur.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Sex offender charged in dancer’s death

  1. Transcript of: Sex offender charged in dancer’s death

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: But we're going to begin this half-hour with new developments in the murder of Laura Garza . We're going to talk to her mother and aunt in a moment. But first, NBC 's Mara Schiavocampo has the latest. Good morning to you, Mara .

    MARA SCHIAVOCAMPO reporting: Good morning, Meredith . This nightclub is the last place where Garza was seen alive. Surveillance cameras caught her leaving with 25-year-old Michael Mele early the morning of December 3rd , 2008 . Now the last person she was seen with is facing charges. In the long, sad case of missing dancer Laura Garza , a development two years in the making.

    Mr. FRANK PHILLIPS (Orange County District Attorney): The first count alleges that Michael Mele intentionally caused the death of Laura Garza . The second count alleges that he committed murder under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life.

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: Wednesday officials in Orange County , New York , announced the indictment of 25-year-old convicted sex offender Michael Mele in the disappearance and death of Garza , a 25-year-old aspiring dancer, charging the handsome son of a retired transit worker with manslaughter, murder and tampering with the physical evidence of a carpet, car mat and "the deceased body of Laura Garza ." Photogenic and friendly, Garza disappeared two years ago after surveillance cameras caught her leaving this trendy New York City nightclub with Mele . The small-town girl had moved to New York City from Texas just five months before, pursuing her dream of becoming a professional dancer. In the weeks following her disappearance, hundreds of volunteers searched exhaustively but turned up nothing.

    Mr. NICOLAS GARZA (Laura Garza's Brother): Sadly, there are no words to describe that -- how we feel right now.

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: Then this April, 16 months after Garza vanished, ATV riders in Pennsylvania stumbled upon a skeleton in the woods. The victim's identity was not immediately clear, but a watch found nearby was similar to one Garza had worn in pictures. Soon after, the worst was confirmed.

    Mr. WAYNE OLSON (New York State Police): The analysis determined conclusively that those remains are in fact Laura Garza .

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: Though considered a suspect, Mele was not immediately charged in Garza 's death. Police say at his condo patches of carpet had been removed. And when he was later locked up for a parole violation, officials say a body check revealed scratches and a possible bite mark. Mele is currently serving a sentence for violating parole as a sex offender . One victim told NBC News he exposed himself to her in a parking lot when she was just 17.

    Ms. ARIANA McLEAN (Attacked by Sex Offender): He was like a predator. He ran after me. He didn't try to do it subtly at all.

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: Just this March a parole board denied Mele 's release, citing his history of sexually deviant behavior. Now prosecutors say that behavior escalated to murder, and experts say it's not uncommon.

    Ms. PAT BROWN (Former FBI Criminal Profiler): After a point in time they get bored, and they want to have more and more power and control over victims. And so they usually go from simple things like peeping toms or exposing themselves up to rape and sometimes serial murder .

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: Mele has not yet been arraigned or indicated what his plea will be. In an e-mail, his attorney told me, 'We have no comment with regard to the indictment.' The cause of Garza 's death is still a mystery, as officials have not made that information public. Meredith :

    VIEIRA: Mara Schiavocampo , thank you so much . Elizabeth Esquivel is Laura Garza 's mother. She is with us along with Garza 's aunt, Isela Villalobos . Good morning to you both.

    Ms. ISELA VILLALOBOS (Laura Garza's Aunt): Good morning.

    VIEIRA: I know this has been a very difficult two years for your family; first the disappearance of Laura back in December two years ago, then her remains being found this April, and now this indictment coming out against Michael Mele , the only suspect ever in this case. Your initial reaction, Isela , when you heard about this yesterday?

    Ms. VILLALOBOS: Meredith , we were relieved, you know? We had been hoping for this to have happened some time ago. But we know that the law system in New York is doing what they have to do. And this is what happened, you know, yesterday, as far as releasing the information of what he was going to be indicted with.

    VIEIRA: Why do you think that it took as long as it did? Do you believe maybe they came up with new evidence?

    Ms. VILLALOBOS: Since the beginning of this investigation we were informed that, you know, it was going to be for the long haul, especially because we weren't -- we hadn't found Laura . And 16 months later when they did, the case took a turn. It was -- it was a different case, you know? They had to treat it differently because they had found the remains of her.

    VIEIRA: According to Orange County DA Francis Phillips -- that's Orange County , New York -- law enforcement officials want, quote, "to be sure this case is tried in court." Isela , if you can help me, I know that Elizabeth does not speak English, I'd like her reaction to that. And does she feel that she could handle a trial, given how painful that will be?

    Ms. VILLALOBOS:

    Ms. ELIZABETH ESQUIVEL:

    Ms. VILLALOBOS: Yes, she just says it's very difficult for her. As you know, I have always been by her side, and it's been a roller coaster ride, you know, not finding her, then finding her, then confirming that it was her, definitely it was her. And then after all the, you know, after two years, then indicting Michael Mele . And since the beginning, you know, we had a feeling that he had something to do with Laura 's death.

    VIEIRA: But do you feel, Isela , the family is prepared and perhaps wants to, if he does stand trial, to be there?

    Ms. VILLALOBOS: Yes, we are prepared. I have spoken to the brothers, and all we could do is just hope and pray for the best.

    VIEIRA: You know, I've thought so often about Laura , your niece, and the fact that she came to New York , aspiring dancer. She had such hopes and dreams. And what might have become to her -- become of her in these two years had this not happened. Are those thoughts that have crossed your mind?

    Ms. VILLALOBOS: Yes. I'm sure we had -- we would have gone to visit her because she loved the city. And as far as right now, I'm sure she would have already accomplished the dream of trying to get into some type of dance academy up in New York .

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