GOSHEN, N.Y. – A sex offender suddenly admitted Monday that he suffocated an aspiring dancer from Texas he met at a Manhattan nightclub, stuffed her body into a laundry basket and dumped her 85 miles away in the Pennsylvania woods.
Accepting a manslaughter conviction in a plea bargain after three years of non-cooperation, Michael Mele said that after he picked up 25-year-old Laura Garza in December 2008, she became upset in his upstate apartment when she saw a picture of his girlfriend.
"She wanted to leave. I didn't want to drive back," said Mele, 26. "She started to get a little louder. I put my hand over her mouth and partially her nose, and shortly after that, she stopped yelling, stopped moving, and I realized something bad had happened."
He said he then panicked.
"I put her in a laundry basket and put a blanket over it," before carrying the body to his Infiniti SUV and driving to a remote area outside Scranton, Pa., where he dumped it, he said.
Garza's remains weren't found for more than two years.
Orange County Judge Nicholas De Rosa agreed to sentence Mele to 23 years in prison for manslaughter and at least 16 months more for tampering with evidence — Garza's body. The sentences are to be served concurrently, and defense lawyer Craig Brown said after the plea that with good behavior, Mele could be out in less than 20 years.
If convicted of murder at trial, he could have been sentenced to 25 years to life.
Several of Garza's relatives who attended the court session weren't satisfied.
Garza's mother, Elizabeth Esquivel, wept as she spoke to reporters in Spanish. A family friend, Awilda Cordero, translated, saying, "She's very upset. She's not happy with the 23 years. They wanted a jury to give him more. She's worried he'll get out before the 23 years."
Garza's brother Ivan Garza said, "It's not justice."
"My mother and my brother Nicolas and I, we came to see the man and to see a jury," he added. He said he has a daughter who might be Laura's age when Mele gets out of prison and he worries about people like him walking free.
Cordero said the family would address the judge about their concerns when Mele is formally sentenced March 6.
Prosecutor Kelle Grimmer wouldn't comment. A call to the district attorney's office wasn't immediately returned.
The plea came as jurors gathered in a nearby room, ready to hear the case. Opening arguments and the first witnesses had been scheduled for Monday. The gallery was packed with reporters and investigators, some of whom had worked on the case since Garza disappeared.
Garza, dreaming of a career in dance, had moved to Brooklyn from McAllen, Texas, on the Mexico border, five months earlier.
Early on Dec. 3, 2008, a surveillance camera captured her leaving the Marquee nightclub in Manhattan with Mele, who had several sex-offense convictions — most involving approaching women while fondling himself — and was on parole.
Investigators said they drove north 60 miles to his Wallkill home. Garza never came home, and Mele quickly became the prime suspect in her disappearance. He refused to answer questions, "continuing to exercise his right to remain silent," said Orange District Attorney Frank Phillips.
But Mele was quickly locked up for violating parole — he acknowledged drinking, he had not attended sex-offender treatment and he had not reported to his probation officer.
Police said that two days after Garza's disappearance, Mele had what appeared to be a bite mark on his finger and scratches on his back. Mele said the mark on his finger was a knife cut incurred during his work as a restaurant manager; he blamed his cat for the scratches.
His apartment and the woods, fields, roads and icy lakes around it, as well as septic systems and trash bins, became the grounds for an exhausting search for Garza and for evidence.
As many as 200 firefighters, police officers and volunteers spent days searching various locations in Orange and Sullivan counties.
Garza's brothers traveled east from Texas and posted "missing" signs with their sister's picture around the area. They held vigils for her in Manhattan a month after her disappearance and again at the one-year mark.
In April 2010, a group of ATV riders came across what police described as "an intact skeleton" outside Scranton. Police said a watch that Garza was wearing when she disappeared was found on the remains. DNA tests confirmed the identity.
Mele was indicted in December. Garza's body was eventually cremated, the ashes returned to her Texas hometown.