Laura Garza moved from Texas to New York City nearly two years ago with dreams of making it big as a dancer. Several months later, on Dec. 3, 2008, the 25-year-old woman left a Manhattan bar with a registered sex offender and was never seen again.
DNA testing confirmed that skeletal remains found on April 11 by ATV riders near Olyphant, Pa., are Garza’s, authorities said Monday. That brought both sadness and relief to her family.
After such a long time, we did have hope she was going to come in the door and put her arms around us,” Isela Villalobos, Garza’s cousin, told the New York Daily News. “Unfortunately, that is not happening. We knew that, but I guess we didn’t want to accept that.”
Police also determined that a Michael Kors watch found with the remains was Garza’s. The cause of death has not been determined.
Garza left the Marquee club with Michael Mele, who is now in prison in an unrelated case. He has not been charged in her death but is a suspect, police said.
“Our suspect remains Michael Mele,” New York State Police Lt. Pierce Gallagher told AOL News today. “He was the last person seen with her. He’s got a history of being a sexual predator. He’s our suspect.”
Mele’s lawyer, Craig Brown, told The Associated Press, “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.”
Cameras at the nightclub recorded Garza leaving with Mele in the early morning hours. They two were also seen several hours later in Newburgh, nearly 70 miles north of the city and about a few miles from Mele’s house, according to news reports.
Mele, a registered sex offender, was jailed for failing to register a change of address when he moved, the Daily News reported. The son of a retired New York City transit police officer, he was denied parole in March, with the board citing a “history of sexually deviant behavior.”
“I don’t want it to be part of my identity,” he said, according to the Division of Parole’s transcript. “I don’t want it to be part of who I am. I want to move forward.”
Nicolas Garza was notified April 23 that the remains found several miles outside of Scranton, Pa., were those of his sister.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show, adding that he called his cousin and girlfriend to come over so he wouldn’t be alone to tell his mother the news.
After his mother, Elizabeth, arrived, “I didn’t know what to say, but we started crying, and certainly she really knew that something had just happened,” he said. “I gave her the news that they found Laura’s remains. She couldn’t believe it. We all couldn’t believe it.”
Villalobos said on “Today” that in all the time that Garza was missing, her mother never turned off her phone, hoping her daughter would call.
“Never in the 16 months she had turned off her phone,” Villalobos said. “And that day that we received the news, she immediately turned off the phone, and that was just a really sad moment for us.”