The suspect in the killing of an aspiring young dancer from Texas who disappeared after a night out in Manhattan has pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a deal with prosecutors on the day his trial was to start.
Michael Mele, 26, reached the deal Monday that carries a 23-year sentence in prison.
"Laura was in my apartment, and she saw a picture of a girl and female-related items that were my girlfriend's. She was upset ... she wanted to leave. I didn't want to drive back then," Mele said. "She got upset ... she started to get a little louder. I put my hand over her mouth and partially her nose, and shortly after that, she stopped yelling, stopped moving, and I realized something bad had happened."
He panicked, he said, and instead of calling 911, he drove out to a wooded area of Pennsylvania.
When the prosecutor demanded more detail about what he did with Garza's body, Mele said, "I put her in a laundry basket and put a blanket over it," before carrying it to his car.
Opening statements had been scheduled in Orange County Court Monday in the case against Mele. He had been charged with murder, manslaughter and evidence tampering. If convicted of murder, he would have been sentenced to 25 years to life.
With the plea, defense lawyer Craig Brown said Mele could be out in les than 20 years with good behavior.
Several of Garza's relatives who attended the court session weren't satisfied.
Garza's mother, Elizabeth Esquivel, wept as she spoke to reporters in Spanish.
A family friend, Awilda Cordero, translated, saying, "She's very upset. She's not happy with the 23 years. They wanted a jury to give him more. She's worried he'll get out before the 23 years.''
Garza's brother Ivan Garza said, "It's not justice.''
"My mother and my brother Nicolas and I, we came to see the man and to see a jury,'' he added.
He said he has a daughter who might be Laura's age when Mele gets out of prison and he worries about people like him walking free.
Cordero said the family would address the judge about their concerns when Mele is formally sentenced March 6.
Prosecutor Kelle Grimmer wouldn't comment. A call to the district attorney's office wasn't immediately returned.
The plea came as jurors gathered in a nearby room, ready to hear the case.
The gallery was packed with reporters and investigators, some of whom had worked on the case since Garza disappeared.
Garza, dreaming of a career in dance, had moved to Brooklyn from McAllen, Texas, on the Mexico border, five months before she disappeared.
Early on Dec. 3, 2008, a surveillance camera captured Garza leaving the Marquee nightclub in Manhattan with Mele, who had several sex-offense convictions — most involving approaching women while masturbating — and was on parole.
Investigators said Mele drove Garza north in his Infiniti SUV toward his home in Orange County, about 60 miles from New York. They were last spotted in Newburgh.
Garza never came home, and Mele quickly became the prime suspect in her disappearance. He refused to answer questions, "continuing to exercise his right to remain silent," said Orange District Attorney Frank Phillips.
But Mele was quickly locked up for violating parole — he acknowledged drinking, he had not attended sex-offender treatment and he had not reported to his probation officer.
Police said that two days after Garza's disappearance, Mele had what appeared to be a bite mark on his finger and scratches on his back. Mele said the mark on his finger was a knife cut incurred during his work as a restaurant manager; he blamed his cat for the scratches.
His apartment and the woods, fields, roads and icy lakes around it, as well as septic systems and trash bins, became the grounds for an exhausting search for Garza and for evidence.
As many as 200 firefighters, police officers and volunteers spent days searching various locations in Orange and Sullivan counties.
Among the items found were pieces of carpet. Police had noted that patches of carpet had been cut away in Mele's apartment, and the evidence tampering charge alleges that Mele hid carpet pieces, a car mat and Garza's body to keep them from becoming trial evidence.
Garza was not found until April 2010, when a group of ATV riders came across what police described as "an intact skeleton" outside Scranton, Pa., about 85 miles west of Wallkill.
Police said a watch that Garza was wearing when she disappeared was found on the remains. DNA tests confirmed the identity.
Mele was indicted in December. Garza's body was eventually cremated, the ashes returned to her Texas hometown.