"I hear her alive next to me. I hear her voice saying 'mama.'"
Elizabeth Esquivel (Laura's mother)
It was the 3rd of December 2008. Twenty five year old Laura Garza had been in New York City for five months. She moved there from her hometown of McAllen in Texas, United States to realize her dreams of becoming a professional dancer. Laura had mostly worked in retail but her dream was to dance and become a choreographer one day.
That wasn't the only reason why Laura moved to New York. Her father, Nicolas Garza, passed away and she wanted to do something new and have a fresh start. It was a difficult move for Laura as she was extremely close to her mother, Elizabeth Esquivel, and her two brothers Ivan and Nicolas.
That evening, the 3rd of December, Laura went to a Manhattan nightspot Marquee to meet a few friends and have a few drinks. None of her friends or family saw her after she left the nightclub that night. She never made it home. Her family tried to get in touch with her but they couldn't reach her by phone. Laura was reported missing.
Police went to the Marquee bar and spoke to people who were there that night. They also obtained surveillance footage from the club. Laura left the club in the early hours of the morning. She was seen on the footage leaving with a man. Others who were at the club that night said that they saw Laura and the man she left with dancing and flirting and having fun inside the nightclub. They were seen again, after leaving the club, a couple of hours later in Newburgh.
Police knew exactly who the man seen on the surveillance footage with Laura was. His name was Michael Mele. Michael was a registered sex offender.
The surveillance footage showed Laura and Michael leaving the club at 4am. They were seen a couple of hours later sitting in Michael's car in Newburgh which was a few miles from Michael's apartment in Wallkill. Police believed that after the club, he drove Laura north in his Infiniti SUV towards his apartment in Orange County. The journey was around 60 miles from New York.
Police spoke to Michael the day after Laura disappeared.
Detective Brian Timmons called Michael. He said that he told Michael that Laura was missing and Michael told him that he remembered meeting "a female whose first name began with 'L' and that she lived in Texas in a town near Mexico but according to Michael, they went their separate ways at the end of the night and agreed to meet up at the same nightclub the following week. Michael said that she told him she was meeting up with a friend in Manhattan. At that point, Michael was cooperative but when police brought him to the station to be questioned, he refused to answer questions. He remained silent and would not cooperate with the investigation into Laura's disappearance. Police saw that he had what appeared to be a bite mark on his finger and scratches on his back. He provided an explanation for that. The bite mark wasn't a bite mark at all, according to Michael. It was a cut he got from a knife at the restaurant where he worked and the cat caused the scratches on his back.
Police were convinced that he was involved in Laura's disappearance. But they had to prove it if he wasn't prepared to talk. Michael had broken the terms of his parole. He was drinking, had not attended his sex offender treatment and he had not reported to his probation officer. He had also moved out of his parent's house into his own apartment and had not notified his probation officer of same. Due to that he was locked up for violating the terms of his parole.
Police seized Michael's car and searched his apartment. There was no sign of Laura but they did discover that a patch of carpet was missing from his home.
Hundreds of volunteers, firefighters and police searched the areas around Michael's apartment. They searched the woods and fields beside it and looked in bins and septic tanks but they found nothing. Divers went under the ice covering a lake but again, nothing at all was found.
Sixteen months after Laura disappeared, a discovery was made. In the woods in Mount Cobb, Pennsylvania, on the 11th of April 2010,a group of ATV riders found what police described as "an intact skeleton." Laura was wearing a watch when she went missing and the watch was found on the remains. DNA tests confirmed it was Laura. The area where Laura's remains were found were around a one hour drive from Michael's home.
The discovery devastated Laura's family. For sixteen long months, Laura's mother Elizabeth Esquivel held on to her phone, waiting to hear some news in the hope that Laura would one day be found alive. When she received the terrible news that her daughter was dead and her remains had been found, Elizabeth turned off the phone for the first time since Laura went missing.
The cause of death was determined as "traumatic asphyxia" or strangulation. Laura had been strangled to death.
Michael was charged with murder, manslaughter and evidence tampering in the death of Laura Garza. He faced 25 years to life in prison.
Police believed that he murdered Laura and then hid carpet pieces that he cut from his carpet in the apartment, a car mat and Laura's body so that there would be no evidence for a Trial. But his plan didn't work as the ATV riders found Laura's remains.
The Prosecution's case was to be centered around the life that Michael led before he met Laura. Police found 70 photos in a Jaguar that Michael had stolen. They were of women "from behind, in parking lots and public places." It appeared that none of the women even knew their photo was being taken. Their faces were not in the photos, the photos were taken of women from behind and focused on their bodies and hair. A lot of the photos were of women who were similar to Laura and had the same dark hair as Laura had. In the same vehicle, police found a video. The video showed Michael "masturbating in his car in a public parking lot while looking at women."
It became apparent throughout the course of the investigation, that Michael saw women as objects and had no respect for them at all. One of his own friends told police that if a woman ignored him, it made him angry. Michael kept journals of his own thoughts online. The journals made it clear that he believed one day he could hurt a woman.
His journal outlined how his obsession with women began. He said that he was exposed to pornography at an early age and this built up his "sexual tolerance." He wrote:
“That’s where my sexual switch went from off to on in a matter of seconds.”
He discovered the Playboy Channel after elementary school. In high school, he bought a small camera and took pictures of girls in public places. Michael lost his virginity when he was just 14 years old.
The older Michael got, the worse his obsession became. It moved from pornography to taking photos, to masturbating in his car looking at the photos and then to masturbating in front of women. Just before Laura went missing, he masturbated in front of a spray tan attendant in a salon.
Michael had previous arrests for flashing women and for public lewdness in various malls around the tri-state area. A friend of his filed a Protection Order against him after he allegedly broke into her car and laid her bra and jeans on the hood with the message “I gonna rape U” in white lotion when she refused to take him to a fashion show.
In the month before Laura's death, Michael skipped three mandated sex offender treatment meetings and just hours before he went to the nightclub where he met Laura, he was warned about his “erratic behavior” by his counsellors.
On the day his Trial was due to start, Michael made a deal with the Prosecution. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Michael admitted suffocating Laura. He told the Court:
"Laura was in my apartment, and she saw a picture of a girl and female related items that were my girlfriend's. She was upset, she wanted to leave. I didn't want to drive back then. She got upset, 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."
According to Michael, Laura was upset when she discovered he had a girlfriend and wanted to leave. And to stop her from screaming, he suffocated her. Michael said that he panicked but at no point did he call 911. Instead he drove to a wooded area in Pennsylvania.
The Prosecutor asked him what he did with Laura's body and he replied:
"I put her in a laundry basket and put a blanket over it."
He then carried the laundry basket with Laura's body in it to the car, drove to Pennsylvania and dumped her body. He apologized for “what happened.”
Laura's brother, Ivan, told Michael:
"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. 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."
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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