Monday, April 26, 2010

Remains of 25 year old Brooklyn woman missing since December 2008 found- repeat sex offender suspected

(Original Post 12-11-08)
A high ranking New York City MTA assistant police chief’s son, sandwich shop owner, and registered SO was arrested yesterday on suspicion of the kidnapping (and presumably rape and murder) of a 25 year old aspiring dancer from McAllen, TX after her disappearance a week ago today.

According to her family, 25 year old Laura Garza, shoe store worker and recent transplant to New York from Texas, Garza fell in love with NYC after a trip there earlier this year, and saw an opportunity to engage in two of her passions – designing and dance.

Garza's cousin, Isela Villalobos, told WNBC 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?”

As the search for Garza continues, all her friends and family can do is hope and pray that she is found alive.

Garza’s aunt, Elma Esquivel, sat with other family members in their home in Texas, holding pictures of the missing woman and weeping. “He knows where she is,” she said of Mele. “How come he don't tell us where she is?”

“If you guys see her, please call the police and let the authorities know that you've seen her or try to help her out,” her friend Christy Torres told NBC News. “We really want her to come home. We want her to be safe.”

Unfortunately, it is probably too late, as Garza crossed paths with 23 year old Michael Melo, the Newburgh, NY area sex offender with a history of exposing himself to women, and either forcing sex on them, or jacking off in front of them.

Melo had been charged, then convicted of shopping mall parking lot sexual assaults in New Jersey, where he would run up to women, jack off in front of them, leaving semen on his victim’s clothing. One of the New Jersey victims was a 16 year old girl. These offenses were plead down to child endangerment and forcible touching, and Melo was sentenced to 6 years probation.

Garza was picked up at a Manhattan club a week ago today at 4 AM by Melo and another man, after going out with a friend, something that profiler Clint Van Zandt says protects from sexual predation of adults:

Garza came to the bar with a friend, but she left her friend to be with a man she had just met, someone she otherwise knew nothing about. As Tom Cruise's character learned in the movie "Top Gun," you never leave your wingman, the person who would have your best interest at heart, a lesson also learned by 18-year-old Natalee Holloway in Aruba and Imette St. Guillen, the 24-year-old criminal justice graduate student who in early 2006, made a fatal error in judgment; she too trusted the wrong man.

After the other man left, Garza was left alone with Melo, who was the last person who saw her alive. They went to Melo’s hometown of Newburgh, and that’s where the last reports of her alive were made. Though she hasn’t been found, profiler Clint van Zandt lays out his belief that Garza is probably dead, using available police evidence:

When Garza was reported as missing, the police quickly went looking for Mele. When they found him he had scratches on his neck, bite marks on his hands, and had allegedly scrubbed his car and apartment with bleach, this with the assistance of his unknowing girlfriend. He also cut out a large piece of his carpet, indicating that he had accidentally spilled bleach on it, a piece large enough to wrap around the body of a 5’2”, 120 lb. woman like Garza. Witnesses indicate Mele frantically cleaned and vacuumed his car and apartment the morning of Garza’s disappearance, eventually disposing of the vacuum cleaner, one that could contain physical evidence related to the missing woman.

In their search for Garza, police have found a machete, a woman’s shoe and other items of clothing that could be related to the victim, some of which were recovered from a nearby dumpster he was seen going through. Evidence of blood was found in Mele’s SUV, one he had parked at his parent’s home, and blood was also found by police in his apartment.

DNA should quickly tell police if the blood and other physical evidence confirm what investigators believe, that Mele took Garza to his apartment where he may have assaulted and murdered her, then took her remains to a yet to be discovered body disposal site. Should this be the case, investigators will attempt to determine where he car was the morning of Garza's disappearance and where a man in panic would go to dispose of a body.

Divers are in the pond behind his apartment in case he chose a close by site. Although now in police custody for violation of his probation, he is represented by counsel and is not discussing his role in the disappearance and possible death of Garza. I have no doubt that other young girls and women, after seeing Mele's photo and reading about his actions, will come forward to identify him as their previously unidentified assailant. Too late, I fear, for Laura Garza.

Melo was arrested yesterday and held on $50,000 bond by Rockland County police for parole violations, including skipping three sex offender classes, hanging out at bars, failing to met with his PO, and moving to his own apartment from his parents’ home. At least 10 other women have reported various sexual violations by Melo, and officials suspect that the number of victims is much higher.

Besides Paramus, NJ police officials, other law enforcement officers have investigated Melo. Police Detective William Fritz became interested in Melo 2 years ago after complaints of sexual aggression against young women. “His behavior can be described like a predator,” Fritz said.

When minors are kidnapped by sex offenders, most of the time, the first 72 hours are the most critical (and this is the reason why Amber Alerts are issued). If a victim has not been found in the first three days alive, they probably won’t be. There is no reason to doubt this applies to adult victims as well as child victims. However, Garza’s Texas family, including her aunt Elma Esquivel, are holding out hope that for one young woman, things might turn out differently.

“He knows where she is. How come he don't tell us where she is?”

(Update 4-26-10) Laura Garza's body was found in Pennsylvania. Her remains were discovered by two ATV riders in a field April 11 in Olyphant Township, PA, near Scranton.

By April 13, Pennsylvania investigators determined the remains didn’t belong to a missing person in that state’s database. They notified state police in New York, and that led investigators to travel to Pennsylvania and obtain sample to use for the DNA tests.

New York State Police Capt. Wayne Olson said that “That DNA evidence has concluded that the remains are definitely those of Laura Garza...We’ve got a lot of legwork to do here.”  Convicted sex offender Richard Mele is still the only suspect in her murder. "Michael Mele has never been cooperative in this investigation," Olson said.

Miss Garza's remains and a Michael Kors wristwatch were found in a remote wooded area more than a half-mile from the nearest home. Two days after the discovery, investigators in Pennsylvania contacted state police in Middletown, N.Y., to see if the remains could belong to Miss Garza.

Now that the remains have been identified, both New York and Pennsylvania investigators will begin trying to determine the circumstances surrounding Miss Garza's death. For now, New York investigators have taken the lead in the investigation, though Lackawanna County District Attorney Andy Jarbola said his office, the state police and the county coroner's office are still involved in the investigation.

"New York authorities have jurisdiction," he said. "It is possible she was killed here, but I believe the evidence will dictate otherwise." He declined to elaborate.

Lt. Pierce Gallagher said officials plan to interview residents in the Olyphant area regarding possible recollections of suspicious activity around the time of Garza's disappearence and death.

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