A family’s agonizing, months-long search for missing Jefferson Parish teacher Terrilynn Monette appeared to end Saturday when her car was pulled from Bayou St. John at Harrison Avenue with a body in the driver’s seat.
While an autopsy still must be performed to find out if the corpse is that of Monette, 26, state Rep. Austin Badon, who has led search efforts, said the chances that it is not her are slim.
Monette was last seen early March 2 at Parlay’s, a Lakeview bar in the 800 block of Harrison Avenue, about a mile away from where a volunteer diver found the car submerged in about 9 feet of water Saturday morning.
Before she vanished, Monette told friends she planned to sleep in her car for a while because she had 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. Cameras last picked up her black Honda Accord turning left, or lakebound, on Marconi Drive from Harrison Avenue.
Badon on Saturday said it was not clear what route Monette took that led her back to Harrison Avenue.
Monette’s disappearance attracted national media attention and spurred several searches of City Park, its lagoons and Bayou St. John.
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.
But as days turned to weeks and then months, hope faded with each fruitless search. More recently, the family criticized the New Orleans Police Department after an investigator trained in computer forensics claimed he was not allowed time to look at Monette’s computer because the department prioritized the preparation of crime maps and other technology issues.
“The community should be outraged,” Terry Monette, Terrilynn’s father, said during a vigil on Friday night. “Hearing that a person is trying to do something about the computer and has been taken off of it — I’m very upset about that.”
Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas has denied that allegation.
Monette’s family gathered on the bank of Bayou St. John after Badon called them Saturday with the news that a diver had found the car.
They hugged each other and sobbed as the black car, covered in a greenish film, was slowly pulled out of the water about 2:45 p.m. A crowd of hundreds, including Monette’s friends, co-workers and various others, clapped, knowing that the search was over. Wisner Boulevard at Harrison Avenue became gridlocked as passers-by strained to see what was happening.
Monette’s immediate family left a short time later, declining to speak with media.
“They’re trying to wait for answers before they say anything,” said Mallory Turner, one of Monette’s friends.
While Badon said he was glad that the search finally yielded results,
He added that “it was not the outcome we’d hoped for.”
An autopsy will be performed Monday to determine the identity of the body in the car and the cause of death, since it is not clear if foul play was involved.
John Gagliano, the Orleans Parish coroner’s chief investigator, said he could not immediately tell if the body was that of a man or a woman because it was badly decomposed. “If it’s her, she’s been in there three months,” Gagliano said.
Badon said he and Slidell Police Officer Mark Michaud, who is that department’s dive team leader and volunteered with the search effort, were poring over maps Friday night trying to decide what might have been Monette’s likeliest route home the night she disappeared.
She lived on the Gentilly side of City Park, while the bar is on the Lakeview side. They decided to trawl the sections of the bayou near three main crosstown arteries — Harrison, Filmore Avenue and Robert E. Lee Boulevard — on Saturday morning, though they had extensively explored those areas before. During the last two months, officials had extracted at least 17 cars from the murky waterway — none of them Monette’s.
“When you’re in this water, you can’t see anything,” Badon said. “You’ve got to double-check, triple-check.”
One last search of the bayou at Harrison Avenue turned up the grim evidence Badon and Monette’s family had sought.
Michaud said he found a large object using sonar and dove into the water to check it out. He said the water was clear enough that he could instantly see the make and model of the car, as well as its license plate, all of which matched Monette’s.
“I knew that if I didn’t find something we could find out where she wasn’t,” Michaud said a short time after the car and body were pulled from the water, adding that he hoped the family would at least derive a sense of closure. “They need to know who this body is. The not knowing is so awful.”
Turner, who met Monette at a Greek show at Xavier University a couple of years ago, was among those watching as the car was dragged up onto the bank. She remembered Monette, who didn’t grow up in New Orleans but had relatives here, as an eager student of her adopted city’s culture and architecture. But more than anything, the teacher at Woodland West Elementary School in Harvey was a loving and caring friend, Turner said.
“That’s what I’ll always remember,” Turner said, adding that Monette was “always smiling.”
Donald Parker, a second cousin of Monette’s, said the disappearance and the agonizing search for answers helped the various strands of the Monette clan to reconnect. “This brought a lot of people together,” he said. “By this going on, we all got closer.”
Saturday’s closure brought mixed emotions, he said.
“It’s happy, and it’s sad.”