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Family begs for safe return of missing clubgoer

It’s every parent’s nightmare. Their beautiful daughter leaves her small-town home, lured by dreams of fame to the lights of the big city. She goes to a nightclub, is seen leaving with a man — and never comes home. In the border town of McAllen, Texas, the family of Laura Garza is living that nightmare. As the tabloid headlines scream in New York City about the missing woman, her parents, si
/ Source: TODAY staff and wire

It’s every parent’s nightmare. Their beautiful daughter leaves her small-town home, lured by dreams of fame to the lights of the big city. She goes to a nightclub, is seen leaving with a man — and never comes home.

In the border town of McAllen, Texas, the family of Laura Garza is living that nightmare. As the tabloid headlines scream in New York City about the missing woman, her parents, siblings, relations and friends can do nothing but cry and pray and beg for someone to bring her back.

Seen leaving club

The 25-year-old Garza, an aspiring dancer, was last seen six days ago about an hour north of New York City, according to a report filed Tuesday for TODAY by NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander. Earlier that night, she had been seen leaving a Manhattan nightclub with the man she had been dancing with. That man has been identified as Michael Mele, a 23-year-old sandwich shop owner with a history as a sex offender.

Garza’s aunt, Elma Esquivel, sat with other family members in their home in Texas, holding pictures of the missing woman and weeping. “He knows where she is,” she said of Mele. “How come he don't tell us where she is?”

Mele is being held on $50,000 bail by police in Rockland County, N.Y., on charges of breaking his probation for previous convictions on charges of forcible touching. He has not been charged in relation to Garza’s disappearance, but, Alexander reported, his Infiniti SUV has been impounded and police in hazmat suits were seen scouring his suburban condominium.

“Police say Mele's apartment appeared to be thoroughly cleaned with bleach — and they reportedly found patches of carpet missing inside as well as a machete,” Alexander reported. “Investigators say they also discovered marks on Mele's body that may have come from bites or scratches.”

A troubling record

The Associated Press has reported that Mele is the son of a retired assistant deputy police chief for New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. According to WNBC in New York, other women have come forward with information about Mele since Garza disappeared and he was arrested on the probation-violation charges.

WNBC reported that his previous convictions “involved several episodes of public lewdness.” WNBC also reported that police in Paramus, N.J., issued a warrant accusing him of public lewdness and exposing himself to a child under 13 years of age in 2005.

The probation violations, WNBC reported, involved drinking in a bar and failing to report to his probation officer and missing sex-offender treatment sessions.

Clarkstown, N.Y., Police Detective William Fritz first investigated Mele two years ago after he was accused of being sexually aggressive toward young women, Alexander reported.

“His behavior can be described like a predator,” Fritz told NBC News.

Neither Mele, his parents nor his attorney has spoken to reporters.

Dreams of dancing

According to the AP, Garza moved from McAllen to Brooklyn about six months ago and was working in a shoe store in Manhattan. Her family said she was saving up to study dance in New York.

Garza's cousin, Isela Villalobos, told WNBC Monday from Mission, Texas, that Garza loved New York after moving there from McAllen. “She went there for a vacation this year and she came back and told her mother she was moving,” Villalobos said. “She loved fashion and she loved the dance, and where else but New York do you go for that?”

As the search for Garza continues, all her friends and family can do is hope and pray that she is found alive.

“If you guys see her, please call the police and let the authorities know that you've seen her or try to help her out,” her friend Christy Torres told NBC News. “We really want her to come home. We want her to be safe.”

—Mike Celizic, with additional reporting by the Associated Press