GOSHEN, N.Y. – A sex offender was charged Wednesday with killing an aspiring dancer who vanished two years ago after leaving a New York City nightclub with him.
An indictment charges Michael Mele with murder, manslaughter and evidence tampering in the death of Laura Garza, 25, of Brooklyn. He could face 25 years to life in prison if he's convicted of murder.
He's accused of killing her in Orange County, N.Y., northwest of New York City. Garza's skeletal remains were found in April in the woods in Mount Cobb, Pa., after what Orange County District Attorney Frank Phillips called "the most intensive search mission I have ever seen."
Garza had been missing since Dec. 3, 2008, when surveillance cameras at the Manhattan nightspot Marquee caught her leaving with Mele. They were also seen a couple of hours later a few miles from Mele's home in Wallkill.
Mele, always the prime suspect, is already serving time for violating his parole as a sex offender. Defense lawyer John Ingrassia would not comment.
"I hope it brings some relief to the family, but we have explained to them that an indictment is not a conviction," said Phillips.
"We're pleased with the result," Garza's cousin Isela Villalobos of McAllen, Texas, said by phone. "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."
"We think about her every day," Villalobos said. "This Christmas will be another difficult Christmas."
Mele had several sex-offense convictions in New York, most involving approaching women while masturbating, and he was wanted in New Jersey for similar crimes. He was denied release in March by a board that cited his "history of sexually deviant behavior."
Mele refused to talk about Garza as he became the focus of the investigation. He was quickly locked up on a parole violation, and a body check revealed scratches and a possible bite mark on him.
Mele hid carpet pieces, a car mat and Garza's body in an effort to keep them from becoming trial evidence, said Phillips.
At Mele's apartment, police found patches of carpet that had been cut away. They searched his vehicle and carried away bags of evidence for testing.
But there was no sign of Garza, who had dreams of becoming a dancer. She had moved to New York City from McAllen five months before she disappeared.
As many as 200 firefighters, police officers and volunteers spent days searching in Orange and Sullivan counties in upstate New York. Officers looked through Mele's apartment complex, the woods and fields around it, septic systems and trash bins, and the roads and highways nearby. Divers went under the ice covering a lake.
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 and one-year marks, they held vigils for her in Manhattan.
Hope that Garza would be found alive gradually evaporated.
On April 11, 2010, a group of ATV riders found what police described as "an intact skeleton" in Mount Cobb, Pa., several miles outside of Scranton. Police said a watch that Garza was wearing when she disappeared was found on the remains and DNA tests confirmed the identity.
The cause of death was not made public.
No trial date has been set. Mele may be arraigned next week.