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Would-be dancer missing after meeting sex offender

State police searched woods, trash bins and a septic system Monday near the home of a convicted sex offender who left a nightclub last week with a woman who hasn't been seen since.
/ Source: The Associated Press

State police searched woods, trash bins and a septic system Monday near the home of a convicted sex offender who left a nightclub last week with a woman who hasn't been seen since.

State police Capt. Wayne Olson said several women have come forward with information about the man, 23-year-old Michael Mele, who has a record of sex crimes committed in the northern suburbs of New York City. Olson declined to elaborate on what the women told investigators.

Police had publicly requested that women who knew Mele come forward, given his history of sex offenses.

The missing woman, 25-year-old Laura Garza, was a newly transplanted New Yorker who had left a Texas border town with dreams of becoming a dancer.

She met Mele last week at the Marquee nightclub in Manhattan. They left together early Wednesday and were last seen a couple of hours later in his Infiniti sport utility vehicle, 70 miles north of Manhattan and not far from his Wallkill apartment.

On Monday, state police were still searching Mele's SUV, his apartment and the surrounding area, but there was no sign of Garza, Olson said.

Mele, who owns a local Quiznos franchise, has not been charged in connection with Garza's disappearance. His lawyer, Craig Brown, declined to comment Monday about the investigation into her whereabouts.

Mele was jailed Saturday in Rockland County on suspicion of violating his six-year probation for the sex offenses, Brown said.

He is accused of violating probation by drinking at a bar, failing to report to his probation officer and missing sex-offender treatment sessions, said Sgt. Harry Baumann of the Clarkstown police. Mele's convictions involve several episodes of public lewdness, including masturbating near women at a shopping mall, he said.

Mele was being held on $50,000 bail pending a Dec. 22 court appearance.

Late Monday, authorities in Paramus, N.J., issued a warrant accusing Mele of lewdness in a public place and exposure to a child under 13 years of age, Rockland County sheriff's Detective Lt. William Barbera said, calling the new offenses similar to previous ones.

A message left with the Paramus police chief seeking further details wasn't immediately returned. A message left for Mele's lawyer about the New Jersey charges wasn't immediately returned.

Olson said there has been no major development in the search for Garza, but that some evidence was sent to labs for DNA and other tests.

"We need to find this young woman," he said. "We haven't determined that this is a homicide, but certainly we strongly suspect she is a victim of foul play."

Another man who left the club with Mele and Garza told New York City police that they had dropped him off on their way to Mele's apartment.

Garza's cousin, Isela Villalobos, said Monday from Mission, Texas, that Garza loved New York after moving there from McAllen.

"She went there for a vacation this year and she came back and told her mother she was moving," Villalobos said. "She loved fashion and she loved the dance, and where else but New York do you go for that?"