Autopsy confirms body found in car is missing teacher

Autopsy further confirms teacher died by drowning

Advocate staff file photo by Eliot Kamenitz -- A car containing the body of missing schoolteacher Terrilynn Monette is pulled from Bayou St. John near Harrison Avenue on June 8, 2013.
Advocate staff file photo by Eliot Kamenitz -- A car containing the body of missing schoolteacher Terrilynn Monette is pulled from Bayou St. John near Harrison Avenue on June 8, 2013.

The body found inside of Terrilynn Monette’s car Saturday was identified Monday as that of the missing teacher. An autopsy determined that Monette, who had been missing since early March, drowned, said John Gagliano, the Orleans Parish coroner’s chief investigator.

Pathologists found no signs of trauma to Monette’s body, which was identified through dental records, Gagliano said. Toxicology tests are pending, and results should be returned in about two weeks, he said.

A Slidell police officer who volunteered in the search effort for Monette found her black Honda on Saturday morning on the bottom of Bayou St. John at Harrison Avenue as he searchedthe murky waterway using sonar equipment to look for the car and the woman.

Monette, 26, was last seen about 5 a.m. March 2 outside Parlay’s, a Lakeview bar.

Before she vanished, Monette a teacher at Woodland West Elementary School in Harvey, told friends she planned to sleep in her car for a while before she returned to her Gentilly home because she had too much to drink, police have said. She left the bar sometime after 3 a.m.

Video cameras showed her pulling out of a parking lot next to the bar just after 5 a.m. Police have said that cameras last picked up her Honda Accord turning left on Marconi Drive from Harrison Avenue, which would have led her back to her apartment at Robert E. Lee Boulevard and Paris Avenue.

State Rep. Austin Badon, who led the volunteer search effort, on Saturday said it was not clear what route Monette took that led her back to Harrison Avenue.

New Orleans Police Department spokeswoman Remi Braden said Monday that Fatality Unit detectives who specialize in accident reconstruction will try to retrace Monette’s final steps.

Monette’s disappearance attracted national media attention and spurred several searches of City Park, its lagoons and Bayou St. John.

More than a dozen cars were hauled out of the water during recent searches, and though the area where her car was eventually found was searched, sonar appeared to have missed it before, Badon said on Saturday.

Toni Enclade, Monette’s mother, joined a search of the park a week after her daughter disappeared. She was confident at the time that Monette would turn up safely and continued to hope for the best as weeks turned to months without promising leads.

On Friday evening, just hours before Monette’s car would be pulled from the bayou, her family and friends gathered at Marconi and Harrison for a vigil. Enclade made one final plea for additional help with the case.

“I beg the FBI to please take over this case,” Enclade said. “I’m not sure if my daughter is in New Orleans, Mexico, (or) Canada.”

But on Saturday morning, Slidell Police Officer Mark Michaud, who leads that department’s dive team, found the grim evidence the family had searched for during the last three months.

Using sonar he found an object in the water, dove in and saw a black Accord with Louisiana license plate WUN 494 – all of which matched the description of Monette’s car.

A body was found in the driver’s seat, Badon said. Gagliano on Saturday said the remains were too badly decomposed to identify as a man or a woman.

Badon had warned that the chances of the body not being Monette were slim.

A team of forensic dentists from the LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans School of Dentistry confirmed it was Monette by examining her teeth.

“There was no way we could identify somebody after that long (without using dental records),” Gagliano said Monday.

Enclade, who traveled from her native California to search for her daughter, said the family was in the process of planning a memorial service. Monette, who moved to New Orleans two years ago from Long Beach, Calif., will be cremated since her body was too badly decomposed for a traditional burial, Enclade said.

While questions remain about the route Monette took that led her to the bayou, forensic experts agree on two things: Drowning likely was the cause of death, but it will be hard to determine whether alcohol or any other intoxicant might have impaired her ability to drive.

Mary Manhein, director of LSU’s Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services lab — or FACES — said that even in a state of advanced decomposition, any trauma to the body or evidence of wounds Monette might have suffered likely would have shown up in X-rays of her skeleton. That there were no signs of trauma seems to support the autopsy’s finding that she drowned, Manhein said.

The condition of the body means that it might never be clear what, if anything, Monette might have had in her bloodstream when her car went into the water, said Dr. Robert Middleberg, a Pennsylvania-based toxicology expert.

Middleberg said scientists will examine tissue and fluid samples for three things: volatile agents, such as alcohol; common drugs of abuse, such as marijuana or cocaine; and therapeutic agents, such as over-the-counter medicines. Ultimately, he said, scientists will look for traces of 300 to 500 substances.

But with a body in the water for 12 weeks, interpretation of the results could be difficult, he said. The concentration of alcohol, for example, can increase or decrease when a body is submerged for too long, he said. So while further testing can provide a bit more of a solid answer, family and investigators might never get an entirely accurate one.

“This certainly won’t be as simple as when you have a fresh body,” Middleberg said. “That she’s been in the water for three months ... that can be problematic.”