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Sex offender pleads not guilty in NY woman's death

A sex offender pleaded not guilty Monday in the killing of an aspiring dancer who vanished two years ago after leaving a New York City nightclub with him, and his lawyer wants to get him out of prison on bail.

Michael Mele, 25, is charged with murder, manslaughter and evidence tampering in the death of Laura Garza, 25, who had moved from McAllen, Texas to New York five months before her disappearance. He could face 25 years to life in prison if he's convicted of murder.

Mele, wearing a green jail jumpsuit and a buzz cut, his hands cuffed in front of him and shackled to his waist, pleaded not guilty through his attorney, John Ingrassia, in Orange County Court. Prosecutors believe Garza was killed in Orange County, where Mele lived.

Ingrassia won permission from County Judge Nicholas De Rosa to file a bail application in writing. Mele is already jailed for violating his parole as a sex offender, but that sentence could end as soon as Dec. 24.

District Attorney Frank Phillips said outside court that prosecutors would oppose any bail request.

"In any murder case, there's always a flight risk," Phillips said. "Twenty-five to life is a great inducement."

He also said he would oppose any request to move the trial from Orange County because of heavy publicity.

"We've had many high-profile trials," he said.

Phillips said Mele, who was the prime suspect all along and never cooperated with the investigation, was "continuing to exercise his right to remain silent."

Garza had been missing since Dec. 3, 2008, when surveillance cameras showed her leaving the Manhattan nightspot Marquee with Mele. They were also seen a couple of hours later a few miles from Mele's home in Wallkill.

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."

The indictment says Mele hid carpet pieces, a car mat and Garza's body in an effort to keep them from becoming trial evidence. Police said patches of carpet in Mele's apartment had been cut away.

Garza's skeletal remains were found in April in the woods in Mount Cobb, Pa., after what Phillips called "the most intensive search mission I have ever seen."

As many as 200 firefighters, police officers and volunteers spent weeks searching for Garza in Orange and Sullivan counties. Officers looked through Mele's apartment complex, the woods and fields around it, septic systems and trash bins, and nearby roads. 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.

On April 11, 2010, a group of ATV riders found what police described as "an intact skeleton" several miles outside of Scranton, Pa. 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 her death has not been made public.

De Rosa set Mele's next court appearance for March 7, 2011.

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