NY sex offender gets 23 years in dancer's death

March 6, 2012 - 12:17 PM
Nightclub Disappearance

FILE - This undated file photo provided by the New York City Police Department shows registered sex offender Michael Mele. Mele pleaded guilty in January to manslaughter in the death of dancer Laura Garza and is to be sentenced at Orange County Court in Goshen, N.Y., Tuesday, March 6, 2012. (AP Photo/New York City Police Department, File)

GOSHEN, N.Y. (AP) — A New York sex offender was sentenced Tuesday to 23 years in prison for suffocating an aspiring dancer from Texas and dumping her body 85 miles away.

Michael Mele of Wallkill pleaded guilty in January to manslaughter in the death of Laura Garza. The 25-year-old Garza disappeared in 2008 after Mele picked her up in a Manhattan nightclub.

The victim's brother and mother wept in Orange County Court as they told the judge how Garza's death had affected the family.

"I hear her alive next to me. I hear her voice saying 'mama,'" said Garza's mother, Elizabeth Esquivel.

The victim's brother, Ivan Garza, told Mele: "The only thing that can make me feel better is that over the next 23 years one less evil person is out on the street." He added, "What they should do with people like you is mark them like they mark cattle so people will see you in the street and recognize you."

Both spoke in Spanish. Esquivel also shouted in English, "My baby! My angel!"

Garza had moved to Brooklyn from McAllen, Texas, five months before she disappeared. She had hopes of becoming a professional dancer.

On Dec. 3, 2008, a surveillance camera caught Garza and Mele leaving the Marquee nightclub in Manhattan. Mele had several sex-offense convictions and was on parole.

Investigators said the pair drove north 60 miles to Mele's apartment. Garza never came home, and Mele refused to answer questions. He became the prime suspect and was locked up for several parole violations.

Mele's apartment and the surrounding area were exhaustively searched by police and volunteers. But Garza's body was not found until April 2010, when a group of ATV riders near Scranton, Pa., came across what police described as "an intact skeleton."

DNA tests confirmed the identity.

In court during his guilty plea, Mele said that after Garza saw a picture of his girlfriend, "She wanted to leave. ... 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, "put her in a laundry basket and put a blanket over it." He carried the body to his SUV and drove to Pennsylvania, he said.

Offered a chance to speak Tuesday, Mele said he was "deeply and truly sorry for my actions and for my inaction in telling law enforcement what happened that night."

Judge Nicholas De Rosa called the crime "depraved, disgusting, selfish and devastating."

De Rosa said the resolution was "imperfect justice." He said perfect justice would be "at the instant you are sentenced you disappear and Laura Garza reappears ... and enjoys the rest of her life."

Defense lawyer Craig Brown said after the plea that with good behavior, Mele could be out in less than 20 years.