“If the person arrested can or will provide this information (Mickey Shunick’s whereabouts), then he is important to us.” Nancy Rowe, Shunick’s mother
LAWTELL — Residents of this rural community west of the St. Landry Parish seat of Opelousas expressed shock Saturday that a break in the investigation of the May 19 disappearance of Mickey Shunick came from their own backyard.
“I’m not afraid, but for something like to happen in your backyard?” said Shirley Busby, 67.
Her neighbor, Brandon Scott Lavergne, a 33-year-old offshore worker and registered sex offender, was arrested and booked Thursday into the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center on counts of aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette student, who remains missing.
Lavergne, who is being held without bail, lived quietly in a mobile home off a gravel road outside of Lawtell in a prairie area where some of his neighbors raise goats, cattle and horses.
Lavergne’s mother said she, too, was shocked by the allegations against her son.
“I would like to offer my condolences to the Shunick family,” Cynthia Lavergne said Saturday in a statement to KATC-TV. “I also would like to have closure. I know ‘I’m sorry’ is never enough. However, it is all I have to offer at this moment. I am learning about this case as everyone else is, one newscast at a time, one Facebook post at a time, and one phone call at a time.”
Neighbors, who said the area where Lavergne lived is a predominantly black community, couldn’t recall how long he lived there.
At first, Lavergne lived in a house at the corner of Elaine Lane and Leslie Road where his father had lived, neighbors said.
The house burned down about a year ago, said neighbor R.G. Harrison, and was later replaced with a mobile home.
Harrison said after the house burned, Lavergne visited him and asked if he had seen anything suspicious. That was one of the few times the two neighbors spoke, Harrison said.
“There was something funny about him,” Harrison said. “He didn’t really mingle. He didn’t talk, and I’d talk to his father when he lived there.”
Busby said Lavergne was cordial to her.
“He seemed like a normal guy to me,” she said. “He’d wave when he passed.”
Busby said after the house burned, Lavergne sat inside her living room to talk to the fire marshal. After the fire, Lavergne went offshore and returned two weeks later with a box of sausage for her as a gesture of thanks, she said.
Even this spring, when Busby received notice that Lavergne was a registered sex offender, she gave him the benefit of the doubt, she said.
“I’d still wave at him because I didn’t think he’d ever hurt me,” she said. “He served his time. Some people change. Some people do not.”
Lavergne was released from prison in 2008 — two years early for good behavior — after serving 85 percent of his 10-year sentence for aggravated oral sexual battery involving an 18-year-old woman in rural Evangeline Parish. In prison, he studied auto body repair and was a tutor in a sex-offender treatment program. He’s now trying to fight a requirement that he register as a sex offender, and filed a petition on May 31. His request was set for a hearing in August.
The latest accusations against Lavergne have rattled Busby.
“I was never nervous to live here until I saw out my back door Thursday,” she said. That’s when law enforcement vehicles lined the road beside her house and officers filled the yard, she said, searching the pastures that run behind her home and Lavergne’s property.
The officials continued the search of Lavergne’s trailer and the property Friday.
Lafayette Police Cpl. Paul Mouton said Saturday that police dogs were used during the search.
Items collected from Lavergne’s residence are still being processed to “determine if it has evidence value or not,” Mouton said.
Busby, meanwhile, noted that about four to five weeks ago a pasture that was part of the search had been overcome by buzzards.
“I’ve never seen them like that before,” she said. “They’d fly over the pasture.”
Busby said she’s praying the ground doesn’t hold Shunick, but hopes the student is found soon.
“I pray and ask the Lord, let them find her and bring some closure to that family,” she said. “That family is really fighting to find her.”
Shunick’s family, friends and the volunteers who have become part of the “Find Mickey Now” search effort remain hopeful for Shunick’s return.
“We want what we have wanted since May 19, which is to find our daughter and sister and bring her home,” Shunick’s mother, Nancy Rowe, said in an email response Saturday to The Advocate. “If the person arrested can or will provide this information, then he is important to us. Otherwise, our goals remain the same, and we will continue to work towards finding Mickey.”
After a night with her friends, Shunick left a friend’s house on Ryan Street near downtown Lafayette and set off just before 2 a.m. May 19 on her black Schwinn bicycle to her parent’s house about five miles away on Governor Miro. She never made it home. She disappeared two days before her 22nd birthday.
Video footage shows her bicycling past the Lafayette Consolidated Government building on St. Landry Street and a white Chevrolet Z71 truck behind her. A tip linking the Z71 truck to Lavergne is what led to his arrest Thursday.
Lavergne had reported the truck stolen in Montgomery County, Texas, and it was later found burned in San Jacinto County, Texas.
Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said at a news conference Friday that evidence also links Lavergne to the area where Shunick’s bicycle was found May 26 at the Whisky Bay exit off Interstate 10. He did not provide additional details.
On Saturday, Lavergne remained in a separate cell under protective custody at the Lafayette Parish Prison, but is no longer under suicide watch, said Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Kip Judice.
Protective custody and monitoring of an inmate’s emotional health and potential threats from other inmates is standard procedure for high-profile arrests and for inmates arrested on certain charges, such as first-degree murder, Judice said Saturday.
“There’s an evaluation period with every high-profile inmate,” he said.
Advocate staff writer
Jason Brown contributed
to this report.