GOSHEN, N.Y. — A convicted sex offender who picked up an aspiring dancer from Texas at a Manhattan nightclub three years ago admitted Monday that he killed her in his upstate apartment because she became upset that he had a girlfriend.
Michael Mele, wearing a dark suit, unexpectedly pleaded guilty to charges of manslaughter and evidence tampering in the killing of 25-year-old Laura Garza. The plea came just before the start of his murder trial in Orange County 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," Mele said. "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."
He panicked, he said, and instead of calling 911, he drove out to a wooded area of Pennsylvania.
When the prosecutor demanded more detail about what he did with Garza's body, Mele said, "I put her in a laundry basket and put a blanket over it," before carrying it to his car.
Garza, dreaming of a career in dance, had moved to Brooklyn from McAllen, Texas, on the Mexico border, five months before she disappeared.
The judge agreed to sentence Mele to 23 years in prison on the manslaughter count and 16 months to four years for evidence tampering. Sentencing is set for March 6.
Garza's mother, Elizabeth Esquivel, and two brothers attended the hearing Monday. The packed courtroom included a dozen investigators who had worked on the case.
A family friend translated for Esquivel, who spoke in Spanish.
"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," the friend said.
Garza's brother, Ivan Garza, said, "It's not justice."
Assistant District Attorney Kelle Grimmer declined to comment Monday on the case.
Early on Dec. 3, 2008, a surveillance camera captured Garza 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 Mele drove Garza north in his Infiniti SUV toward his home in Orange County, about 60 miles from New York. They were last spotted in Newburgh.
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.
Among the items found were pieces of carpet. Police had noted that patches of carpet had been cut away in Mele's apartment, and the evidence tampering charge alleged that Mele hid carpet pieces, a car mat and Garza's body to keep them from becoming trial evidence.
Garza's brothers Ivan and Nicolas traveled east from Texas and posted "missing" signs with their sister's picture around the area. They held vigils for her a month after her disappearance and again at the one-year mark.
Laura Garza's body wasn't found until April 2010, when a group of ATV riders came across what police described as "an intact skeleton" outside Scranton, Pa., about 85 miles west of Wallkill. Police said a watch that Garza was wearing when she disappeared was found on the remains. DNA tests confirmed the identity.
Only then did Garza's mother give up hope, said cousin Isela Villalobos.
"She always believed her good daughter would come in the door," Villalobos said.
Mele was indicted in December and pleaded not guilty to all charges. Defense attorney Craig Brown criticized police for investigating only one suspect.
Garza's body was eventually cremated, the ashes returned to her Texas hometown.