Longtime Suspect in Laura Garza's Murder Pleads Not Guilty

For two years, Michael Mele refused to talk. Now he's been charged anyway

For two years, Michael Mele refused to talk to investigators. He wouldn't answer questions about the disappearance of a young woman who came to New York City with show-business dreams.

On Monday, the convicted sex offender was be in court anyway, facing charges that he killed her and hid her body.      

The 25-year-old Mele pleaded not guilty in Orange County Court, near his Wallkill home, in the death of Laura Garza of Brooklyn. The judge ordered him held without bail, but said Mele's lawyer could apply for bail in writing.

Garza had moved to New York from Texas five months before she ran into Mele in December 2008, never to be seen again.

Despite intensive searches, the 25-year-old Garza's remains were not found until a group of all-terrain vehicle riders stumbled upon them in April 2010 outside Scranton, Pa.     

Mele, the last person seen with her, had been imprisoned on a parole violation for failure to register as a sex offender when he moved. 

Until last week, prosecutors have not had enough evidence to charge Mele in the crime. On Wednesday, he was being charged with murder, manslaughter and evidence tampering.

He will be brought to court today from the upstate prison where he's been serving time on the non-related charge.

Orange County District Attorney Francis Phillips said last week it is "highly unlikely any of Mele's criminal past will be presented to the jury" hearing about the Garza case.  The DA was unwilling to discuss evidence on why the grand jury returned the indictment offering four separate murder charges, ranging from murder to manslaughter.  Mele could only be convicted of one of those charges.

Garza knew nothing about Mele's "checkered past," as one cop described it, the night she was seen on security video leaving the nightclub Marquee with him. They were also seen a couple of hours later a few miles from Mele's home in Wallkill.

 A search of Melee's apartment found it had been scrubbed clean with bleach, and parts of the carpet had been cut away.

The young woman's family had hoped and pleaded for months that someone would tell them where to find their beloved daughter. But the only man police believed could help them in the case -- Mele -- wasn't talking.

Relatives came to New York from Texas first to help in the search for Laura, then for the tearful vigils as time passed and the likelihood of finding her alive grew dimmer. Garza's mother issued a public plea to Mele's mother to help convince her son to cooperate with authorities.

 "We're pleased with the result,'' Garza's cousin Isela Villalobos of McAllen, Texas, said by phone last week after the indictment was announced. "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.''

Video shows mele leaving the Chelsea nightclub with Garza, who  had moved from Texas to Brooklyn a short time before her disappearance. Her devastated family brought her body back to Texas for burial.

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