Deal lets suspect avoid death penalty in Shunick, Pate slayings
LAFAYETTE — Just short of 30 days after being charged with two counts of first-degree murder, Brandon Scott Lavergne stood before a 15th Judicial District judge on Friday and pleaded guilty to the slayings of Michaela “Mickey” Shunick and Lisa Pate, both of Lafayette.
The plea agreement, which prosecutor Keith Stutes described outside the courtroom as “historic,” allows the 33-year-old offshore worker from St. Landry Parish to avoid the death penalty and instead serve a sentence of life in prison on each count. The agreement does not provide Lavergne immunity from prosecution for any other crimes.
The agreement was reached in principle on Aug. 7, when Lavergne pointed out the location of Shunick’s remains on an aerial map and led investigators through a re-enactment of the killing while checked out of jail for several hours that day, Stutes told Judge Herman Clause.
Authorities found Shunick’s body later that day buried near a cemetery in rural Evangeline Parish.
“My sister, Mickey Shunick, was a warrior,” Charlene “Charlie” Shunick wrote in a statement issued after Lavergne’s plea. “If it wasn’t for her, our community never would have been able to bring down a dangerous man that harmed multiple people,” the sister wrote, adding later, “The power and strength she had throughout her life and especially on May 19th is something that I will strive to obtain in my lifetime.”
In court on Friday, Stutes disclosed the following details about the two crimes:
While driving around Lafayette in the early morning hours of May 19 and on his cellphone to call escort services, Lavergne spotted Shunick riding her bicycle across University Avenue onto St. Landry Street. Lavergne was on University Avenue and quickly turned his vehicle onto St. Landry Street behind Shunick.
He followed Shunick through the residential area until they reached a point about midway between Dean Street and Coliseum Road, near Blackham Coliseum. There, Lavergne struck Shunick’s bicycle with his Chevrolet Z71 pickup truck, knocking Shunick from her bicycle. Lavergne, who was armed with a knife and a semi-automatic handgun, then either persuaded or forced Shunick into his truck.
Once inside the vehicle, Shunick grabbed her cellphone and tried to make a call for help. Lavergne threatened her with the knife and Shunick responded by spraying Lavergne in the face with Mace. Lavergne wrestled the Mace away from Shunick, who then grabbed Lavergne’s knife and stabbed him several times. When Lavergne grabbed the knife from Shunick, he cut tendons in his hand and/or fingers.
Lavergne then stabbed the 21-year-old woman at least four times before she slumped over.
Believing Shunick dead, Lavergne then drove to an isolated sugar cane field in Acadia Parish to dispose of the body. He stopped his vehicle, intending to drag Shunick’s body into the field.
“Suddenly, Mickey jumped up with the defendant’s knife she had regained possession of and lunged at the defendant, stabbing him again in the chest,” Stutes said. “The defendant pulled his semi-automatic handgun, which he had armed himself with, and shot Mickey in the head, killing her instantly.”
Shunick died two days before her 22nd birthday. The Lafayette Parish Coroner’s Office issued its report Friday, classifying the cause of death as a gunshot wound to the head with multiple stab wounds listed as a contributing factor.
Stutes said Lavergne drove with Shunick’s body to his home in Church Point, where he nursed his wounds, destroyed the clothes he was wearing and made attempts to clean out his Z71. He then drove Shunick’s remains to the cemetery in Evangeline Parish where she was ultimately found, Stutes said.
Because of his injuries, Lavergne initially was unable to bury the body and instead covered it with branches and debris in a nearby tree line, Stutes said.
Later that day, Lavergne left for a friend’s house in the New Orleans area, dumping Shunick’s bicycle near the Whiskey Bay Bridge off Interstate 10 on his way there. While in New Orleans, Lavergne sought treatment for his stab wounds the evening after her disappearance. He also disposed of the gun and knife used in the killing, Stutes said.
After returning from New Orleans on May 20, Lavergne returned to the cemetery and buried Shunick’s body in a heavily wooded area nearby. He then returned to his home, where he continued to destroy other evidence, including Shunick’s book bag and iPod.
On May 24, after law enforcement released a video of the Lavergne’s white Chevrolet Z71, Lavergne left the state for Texas and burned his vehicle, later fraudulently claiming it was stolen. Police have said the vehicle was reported stolen in Montgomery County, Texas, on May 31 and was found burned the same day in San Jacinto County, Texas.
Lavergne then purchased an almost identical Z71 to “lessen local suspicion,” Stutes said.
Stutes’ account of the crime sent cries out within the courtroom, where an estimated 120 people had gathered to watch the proceedings.
After the hearing, the family expressed their pride in Shunick in a written statement.
“This true blithe spirit, who is smart, funny, outspoken, surprisingly thoughtful, loving and loved, a vibrant, gentle and radiant soul also possesses the heart of a lioness. I cannot express how proud I am of Mickey,” her mother, Nancy Anne Rowe, said in the statement. “I will never call Mickey a victim. She refuses to be a victim. My courageous child faced down a monster. Now I think I can face monsters too. And so can you.”
Stutes gave this account in court of the Pate killing:
Lavergne met Pate in Lafayette and later met up with her at a Lafayette hotel, where he persuaded her to go another area outside the city.
The two spent several days together before Pate told Lavergne that she no longer wished to remain with him and wanted to go back to Lafayette to see her children. Lavergne refused to return her to Lafayette and she lacked the money and resources to return on her own.
When Pate attempted to secretly take Lavergne’s keys and wallet to leave, Lavergne tackled and beat her.
Lavergne, who was later arrested and jailed for a separate sex offense, had narrated details of killing Pate to his fellow inmates, according to Stutes. Stutes said they were prepared to testify that Lavergne told them he had choked and killed Pate using a plastic bag over her head.
After killing Pate, Stutes said, Lavergne then moved her body behind the home of a former acquaintance in an attempt to place suspicion on the acquaintance and deflect any suspicion away from himself.
Pate’s body was found covered by wood on Sept. 21, 1999, in Acadia Parish. Lavergne had been a person of interest in that as early as 2000. Prosecutors brought Lavergne before a grand jury in 2008 but the grand jury declined to take action in the case.
He was not formally charged in Pate’s killing until last month, when a Lafayette Parish grand jury returned first-degree murder indictments against Lavergne in the deaths of Shunick and Pate.
Lavergne had been arrested July 5 in the disappearance of Shunick, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette student.
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.
By Friday afternoon, Lavergne had already been transferred to the state’s custody, said Capt. Kip Judice, spokesman for the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said Friday evening that Lavergne is now at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Lavergne was represented by public defenders Burleigh Doga and Clay Lejeune.
After Friday’s hearing, Doga, Lavergne’s lead defense attorney, described his client as “very, very remorseful.”
Doga said Lavergne wanted the Shunick family to have closure and he wanted to prevent forcing both their family and his own family the burden of having to undergo the often “long and arduous” court process typical in capital prosecutions.
“I hope the resolution today helps the family on its road to closure and healing,” Doga said.
Stutes said there are no other pending charges against Lavergne in Lafayette, but the prosecutor declined to speculate on whether Lavergne has been implicated in any crimes in other jurisdictions.
Mac Sanford, a private investigator in Houston, has said he believes Lavergne could be behind the April 2010 disappearance of 16-year-old Alexandria “Ali” Lowitzer of Spring, Texas. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the lead investigative agency in that case, has not commented on whether they consider Lavergne a suspect in that case.