“We will not stop, just like the day she went missing, until we find out where she is and we get her home. That’s really the most important thing.” Josh Coen, Mickey Shunick search volunteer
LAFAYETTE — Brandon Scott Lavergne pleaded not guilty on Friday to two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the May 19 disappearance of Michaela “Mickey” Shunick and the July 1999 death of Lisa Pate.
Lavergne, 33, of the Lawtell area in St. Landry Parish, appeared in an orange prison jumpsuit before 15th Judicial District Judge Herman Clause in a small courtroom inside the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. Lavergne spoke only two words during the brief hearing.
“How do you plead?” Clause asked.
“Not guilty,” Lavergne responded.
Family members of both victims sat in a courtroom at the Lafayette Parish Courthouse and watched the proceedings live on a TV screen. Family members silently left the courthouse, escorted by Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s deputies, immediately afterward.
Lavergne, an offshore worker from rural St. Landry Parish, faces a possible death penalty if convicted on either of the first-degree murder charges.
Lavergne is a registered sex offender who was released from prison in 2008 after serving eight years on an aggravated oral sexual battery conviction for tying up, blindfolding and then sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman in Evangeline Parish in 1999.
During Friday’s hearing, Lavergne’s public defenders, Burleigh Doga and Clay Lejeune, sought and were granted continuances on two motions — one seeking a bond hearing and the other concerning a preliminary examination of the evidence against Lavergne.
Lavergne is being held without bail in the killings.
Josh Coen, who has assisted in volunteer efforts to find Shunick, spoke for the Shunick family outside of the courthouse.
Coen said the family is holding up better than he would be if he were in the same position.
“They’re some of the strongest people I’ve ever met,” Coen said.
Meanwhile, efforts to locate Shunick are continuing, although they have been scaled back, Coen said.
“We will not stop, just like the day she went missing, until we find out where she is and we get her home,” Coen said. “That’s really the most important thing.”
Lavergne initially was arrested July 5 on counts of first-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping in Shunick’s disappearance after investigating a tip connecting him to a white truck seen on surveillance video the day she went missing.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette student was last seen shortly before 2 a.m. on May 19 bicycling from a friend’s home on her way to her parents’ home on Governor Miro, about five miles away.
On July 18, a Lafayette Parish grand jury, in a surprise move, charged Lavergne with not only Shunick’s killing but also in the death of 35-year-old Lisa Pate, of Lafayette. The state announced then that it intended to seek the death penalty.
Pate’s remains were discovered on Sept. 21, 1999, under some boards behind a home at 2290 Brigman Highway near Church Point in rural Acadia Parish, according to news reports at the time and an Acadia Parish Sheriff’s Office incident report.
She had been missing for several months. The indictment listed the date of her killing as July 3, 1999.
District Attorney Mike Harson said Lavergne had been a suspect in Pate’s killing since as early as 2000.
While no arrests were made in Pate’s killing, prosecutors asked an Acadia Parish grand jury in April 2008 to consider second-degree murder charges against Lavergne in her death. However, the grand jury took no action on the case.
Harson has said the case was pretermitted “due to the fact that they apparently felt there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant charging him at that time.”
Harson, whose office covers Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes, said Pate apparently died of asphyxiation.
In an email response Friday, Harson wrote that prosecutors could opt to try both cases together. The fact that Shunick disappeared in Lafayette and Pate’s body was found in Acadia Parish should not cause the two cases to be tried in separate parishes, Harson wrote.
“We feel that jurisdiction is proper since the law provides that jurisdiction is proper in any location where an element of the crime occurred. We believe that is satisfied in our case. I can’t elaborate on that point,” Harson wrote.