NEW YORK – A number of women came forward Monday with information about a sex offender who left a nightclub with a woman who vanished shortly afterward, state police said as they searched woods and trash bins near the man's home.
The missing woman, 25-year-old Laura Garza, was a newly transplanted New Yorker who had left a Texas border town with dreams of becoming a dancer. The suspect, 23-year-old Michael Mele, had a record of creepy sex crimes in the northern suburbs.
They met last week at the Marquee nightclub in Manhattan. They left together early Wednesday and were last seen a couple of hours later in his fancy SUV, 70 miles north of Manhattan and not far from his Wallkill apartment.
She hasn't been seen since.
On Monday, state police were still searching Mele's apartment and his Infiniti, as well as nearby fields, woods, trash bins and a septic system, but there was no sign of Garza, dead or alive, said state police Capt. Wayne Olson.
"We need to find this young woman," Olson said. "We haven't determined that this is a homicide but certainly we strongly suspect she is a victim of foul play."
Mele, who owns a local Quiznos franchise, has not been charged in the case. Given that, his lawyer, Craig Brown, declined to comment on his guilt or innocence.
By Monday evening, Mele was facing apparently unrelated charges. Authorities in Paramus, N.J., issued a warrant accusing him of lewdness in a public place and exposure to a child under 13 years of age, Rockland County sheriff's Detective Lt. William Barbera told reporters, calling the new case "similar" to his previous offenses. Sgt. Harry Baumann of the Clarkstown police said Mele's earlier convictions involved several episodes of public lewdness, including masturbating near women at a shopping mall.
A message left with the Paramus police chief seeking further details wasn't immediately returned. A message left for Mele's lawyer about the New Jersey charges wasn't immediately returned.
Olson said there had been no major development in the search for Garza, but some evidence was sent to labs for DNA and other tests. He would not confirm published reports that a swatch of carpet was missing, that the apartment was suspiciously clean or that blood had been found in the car.
He also said a number of women had offered helpful information about Mele, which he would not detail. Police had publicly requested that women who knew Mele come forward, given his history of sex offenses.
Olson said police had also spoken with several of Garza's friends and relatives, and with some of Mele's associates, but Mele and his parents were not talking on their lawyer's advice.
Another man who left the club with Mele and Garza told New York City police that they had dropped him off on their way to Mele's apartment.
Mele, 23, pleaded guilty on Saturday to a Manhattan traffic infraction — parking on the pavement — and he was jailed afterward in Rockland County for violating his six-year probation sentence for the sex offenses, Brown said Monday.
For one thing, he shouldn't have been drinking at the bar on Wednesday, said Baumann of the Clarkstown police. He had also failed to report to his probation officer and had missed sex-offender treatment sessions, Baumann said.
Mele was being held on $50,000 bail pending a Dec. 22 court appearance. His parents visited him Monday but he had not made bail by late afternoon, said Detective Lt. William Barbera of the Rockland County sheriff's office.
Garza's cousin, Isela Villalobos, said 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?"
Garza had worked in a clothing store in McAllen, Texas, and worked in a shoe store in Manhattan. Villalobos said Garza wanted to pay off some debts before applying to three dance schools in the city.
She also said Garza would never have left the club willingly with Mele.
"She was a good girl, she came home every night," she said.