A young woman missing for a week after leaving a Manhattan nightclub with a convicted sex offender had been homesick for her family and friends and had been talking about returning home to the border town of McAllen, Texas, next year.
Laura Garza, an aspiring dancer with a magnetic personality, had fallen in love with New York City on a visit in June. The 25-year-old moved to Brooklyn soon after to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer, then came home to visit at Halloween, her friend Jessica Gutierrez told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira in an exclusive interview Wednesday in New York.
“She did mention that she was getting homesick,” Gutierrez said. “She wanted to ... at least be here for a year and then go back home.”
In the meantime, Gutierrez and others in Garza’s circle of five close friends in Texas were planning to come to New York to celebrate New Year’s Eve. One week ago, on the night that Garza disappeared, Garza called Gutierrez, who missed the call because she was sleeping. Gutierrez returned the call the next morning, but Garza’s phone was turned off. Later that day, she was reported missing.
Garza, whom friends describe as a woman who never drank or went out with people she didn’t know, was seen leaving a trendy Manhattan nightclub at 4 a.m. with a man identified as Michael Mele, a sandwich shop owner from a town about an hour north of New York City. According to a report filed by NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander, another man rode up to Orange County, N.Y., with Mele and Garza. Mele dropped the man off at a suburban McDonald’s. The man said that Garza and Mele were kissing and laughing in the car.
Later that morning, the man said, Mele called him and said, “That girl was reported missing.” The problem, according to authorities, is that Garza was not reported missing for another eight hours. Alexander reported that when Mele’s friend called him back, Mele said, “I can’t talk to you anymore about this. Three lawyers are involved.”
Mele is being held in the Orange County Jail on charges of violating his probation for previous public-lewdness convictions and is officially a person of interest in Garza’s disappearance. As New York State Police continue to search for Garza, at least 10 other women and teenage girls have come forward with accounts of being followed and threatened by Mele, often in parking lots outside of shopping malls. Some said he exposed himself to them and rubbed against them.
‘Like a predator’
One of the women, 19-year-old Adriana McLean, talked exclusively with Alexander about her experience two years ago in a parking lot. She described Mele as “like a predator.”
“I can replay it in my memory, vividly, every detail. I remember exactly what happened,” McLean said. “I started walking a little bit faster and he was right at my back. I could hear him breathing. So then I started running, and he started running. I couldn't really think much. It was totally deer in the headlights, and honestly my only real thought was, ‘Oh, my God, what if I die right now? What if I'm raped and killed?’ ”
“I feel like it just happened to me. It just totally brought me back to two years ago,” she said. “It feels like it happened yesterday. As soon as he put his hands on me I knew that I was in a lot of trouble, and I thought I was going to die.”
‘He’s still out there’
Gutierrez and Christy Torres, another of Garza’s Texas friends who appeared on TODAY, told Vieira that hearing McLean’s story is chilling.
“I’m in complete shock,” said Torres.
“I can’t believe he’s still out there, that this happened to this girl and he’s still out there and he was able to take Laura,” Gutierrez said.
Both friends said Garza would have gone to a club because she loved to dance, but they can’t imagine her leaving with a man she didn’t know.