Remains found two weeks ago in Pennsylvania have been identified as those of an aspiring dancer from Texas who disappeared after leaving a New York City night club in 2008 with a registered sex offender, state police said Monday.
A DNA analysis confirmed the identity of 25-year-old Laura Garza of Brooklyn. She had moved to New York from McAllen, Texas, five months before she disappeared.
A group of ATV riders found the remains April 11 in Mount Cobb, Pa., several miles outside of Scranton, said Capt. Wayne Olson of the New York State Police.
A watch described as one Garza was wearing when she disappeared was found on the remains, Olson said. Forensic experts will be brought in to examine the skeleton and determine how Garza died, he said.
"Investigators just called us to give us the news that all people were waiting to hear," said her brother, Nicolas Garza. "Sadly, there are no words to describe how we feel right now."
"We've been in mourning since Friday, when the police told us," said a cousin, Isela Villalobos of McAllen, Texas. "It has been very difficult for the family. Laura's mother was expecting for her daughter to come in the door until that dream was shattered Friday afternoon.
"All we do is think of Laura. We have moments when we cry. We have moments when we laugh," Villalobos said in a phone interview from her restaurant in Mission, Texas. "Nothing has changed in her home in McAllen."
Garza left the bar on Dec. 3, 2008, with registered sex offender Michael Mele. He has been investigated but not charged in the case.
"He is still a suspect in the disappearance of Laura Garza," said Captain Olson. "He has a rather checkered past. He's been investigated for a number of alleged sex offenses against women."
Mele is being held at Midstate state prison in Marcy, N.Y., for an unrelated offense. A board denied him parole in March, citing his "history of sexually deviant behavior."
At the parole board hearing, Mele said such behavior was a thing of the past.
"I don't want it to be part of my identity," Mele said, according to a transcript from the Division of Parole. "I don't want it to be part of who I am. I want to move forward."
Surveillance cameras at the Manhattan nightspot Marquee caught Garza leaving with Mele pre-dawn. They were also seen a couple of hours later in Newburgh, a few miles from Mele's home, driving in his Infiniti SUV.
Mele had several sex-offense convictions in Rockland County, most involving approaching women while masturbating, and he was wanted in New Jersey for similar crimes. He had been sentenced to six years' probation and police quickly locked him up for violating the terms of that parole — he admitted drinking, he had not attended sex-offender treatment and he had not reported to his probation officer.
He was later charged with possession of stolen credit cards — not Garza's — and with failing to notify a sex offender registry when he moved to Wallkill.
"We certainly hope her family can move on with the grieving process," said Craig Brown, one of Mele's attorneys.
"The NYPD had indicated that Michael Mele, from the beginning, was a person of interest to the exclusion of all others. Having such tunnel vision in any case is not the most effective way to investigate crimes," Brown said.
Mele refused to talk about Garza as he became the focus of the investigation. A body check of him revealed scratches and a possible bite mark. At his apartment, police found patches of carpet that had been cut away. They searched the SUV and carried away bags of evidence for testing.
But there was no sign of Garza, who had moved to New York City with dreams of making it as a dancer. Hope that Garza would be found alive eventually evaporated.
Officers searched the apartment complex and the woods and fields around it, septic systems and trash bins, and then started beating the bushes along the interstate highway. Then, as many as 200 firefighters, police officers and volunteers spent days searching various locations in Orange and Sullivan counties in upstate New York.
Several women who had past encounters with Mele came forward, but police said they added background rather than major leads. 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 mark, they held a vigil for her in Manhattan.
Garza will be buried in Texas. "She will be coming home," her cousin said.