Suspect’s truck found burned in Texas
LAFAYETTE — While Mickey Shunick remains missing, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft expressed confidence Friday that the man they arrested is the assailant who, they believe, kidnapped and killed the young University of Louisiana at Lafayette student.
A tip linking Brandon Scott Lavergne to a white Chevrolet Z71 truck led police to identify him as a suspect in the May 19 disappearance of Shunick, Craft said during a news conference.
Lavergne, a 33-year-old offshore worker and a registered sex offender, was arrested Thursday on counts of first-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping in the young woman’s disappearance.
Lavergne was identified as a suspect after police were alerted through the department’s tips line on June 14 about a white Z71 registered to Lavergne.
Further investigation revealed Lavergne’s truck was reported stolen in Montgomery County, Texas, and was later found in San Jacinto County, Texas, on May 31, Craft said.
“The truck had been burned just days after police released photographs of the truck as a vehicle of interest,” Craft said, referring to video footage that captured Shunick as she rode her bicycle along St. Landry Street during the early morning hours of May 19.
“Based on information and surveillance, detectives were able to positively identify the truck that traveled directly behind Mickey in the video as belonging to Brandon Lavergne,” Craft said.
The chief also said detectives have evidence connecting Lavergne to the general area where Shunick’s damaged bicycle was found May 26 in the water under the Whiskey Bay Bridge along Interstate 10.
“We can place his vehicle in that area at that time,” Craft said, declining to specify what evidence led investigators to that conclusion.
After Lavergne had been developed as a suspect, Louisiana State Police stopped him Thursday afternoon at the intersection of Interstates 10 and 49 on an unrelated traffic violation, Craft said.
Lavergne was brought to the Lafayette Police Department for questioning in the Shunick case.
Once there, Lavergne declined to cooperate with investigators and requested an attorney, Craft said.
Police also began searching Lavergne’s home near Lawtell in rural St. Landry Parish on Thursday and continued the search on Friday, the chief said.
Craft later said investigators determined Lavergne had purchased another vehicle — also believed to be a white Chevrolet Z71 — after his vehicle was reported stolen.
Craft also confirmed that Lavergne had blacked out some information on his driver’s license that identified him as a sex offender. He was convicted of aggravated oral sexual battery in 2000.
On Friday, Lavergne appeared before 15th Judicial District Commissioner Thomas Frederick for his 72-hour court hearing.
Lavergne told Frederick he could not afford an attorney and was referred to the 15th Judicial District Public Defender Office, Frederick said after the hearing.
Lavergne is being held without bail.
Paul Marx, district defender for the 15th Judicial District Public Defender Office, said Lavergne’s case has been assigned to two veteran death-penalty attorneys from Acadia Parish, Burleigh Doga and Clay Lejeune, along with Elliot Brown from the office’s full-time staff.
Shunick’s family did not attend the news conference Friday, but they did offer the following statement:
“All we want is Mickey back. All we care about is finding out what happened and getting our girl back. We are holding up fine and staying positive, the chances of her being alive today are the same as they were yesterday … and for that reason we are keeping the faith!”
Craft said the search for Shunick continues.
“We want the family to know that we will not rest until we can fully know what happened to her,” Craft said. “We continue our efforts to locate and bring Mickey home.”
A lack of remains could be one possible complication in the prosecution of the case.
“It’s not good not to have a body, but it doesn’t preclude an arrest or prosecution,” said Craig Colwart, head of the public defenders office in St. Mary, St. Martin and Iberia parishes.
Colwart, who is not connected with the Shunick case, added that a body is generally a key piece of evidence in any homicide but he can recall successful murder prosecutions that lacked the remains of a victim.
“Is it difficult? Yes, absolutely. You would rather have a body because the first thing you have to do is convince the jury that the person is not alive,” said prosecutor Chester Cedars, who handles cases in neighboring St. Martin Parish and is not involved in the Shunick case.
Shunick, who would have turned 22 two days after her disappearance, was an animal lover and an avid cyclist.
She was last seen shortly before 2 a.m. leaving a friend’s house at 100 Ryan St. near downtown on her black Schwinn bicycle, riding toward her parents’ home on Governor Miro about five miles away.
Craft said Shunick’s family reported her missing that afternoon after she failed to return home, missed her brother’s graduation from high school, failed to notify anyone of her location and did not respond to calls made to her cellphone.
Her disappearance led to a massive search effort, attracted national media attention and resulted in a groundswell of community support.
That effort continues.
At the volunteer headquarters on Johnston Street, coordinator Margaret Bearb said Friday the group will continue to search until they “bring Mickey home.” Volunteers are keeping their spirits high in the hopes that Mickey is still alive, Bearb said.
“We are not going to close the doors,” she said. “It’s going to be business as usual until Mickey comes home. The family really wants that.”
She said the mood at the headquarters did temporarily darken Thursday afternoon when news of Lavergne’s arrest surfaced. The mood did not last, though.
“Naturally, we all took a deep sigh,” she said. “It was a good relief no matter what the outcome because our whole goal was to find Mickey. It got somber. And then we all picked up our chins off the floor and said, ‘We have to stay here and stay strong until Mickey’s home.’ ”
Bearb, a family friend who has been part of the volunteer effort since day one, said she told Shunick’s family to remain at home and out of the spotlight Friday.
“We want to give them that time to be together and put their heads and thoughts together,” Bearb said. “This has been one long journey.”
Lavergne’s arrest this week comes about four years after his release from prison on the aggravated oral sexual battery charge.
He was accused of tying up, blindfolding and then sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman in rural Evangeline Parish in 1999, according to a summary of the case in Evangeline Parish court records.
Lavergne, who was a soldier stationed at Fort Polk at the time, first told investigators the sexual contact was consensual, but in February 2000 he agreed to plead guilty to aggravated oral sexual battery in exchange for a 10-year sentence and the dismissal of a related aggravated burglary charge.
Lavergne served 85 percent of his 10-year sentence, reduced for good behavior, and was released in August 2008, state Department of Public Safety and Corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde said.
She said Lavergne remained under supervision after his release until February 2010, which would have been the end of his 10-year term.
“There were no violations or revocations,” she said.
Lavergne was married in September 1999 while the sexual battery investigation was pending, but his wife filed for divorce two weeks before Lavergne’s guilty plea, alleging in the divorce petition that he had struck her on two different occasions.
While in jail, Lavergne completed courses in auto body repair and served as tutor in a sex-offender treatment program, according to an unsuccessful petition he filed in 2005 to reduce his sentence.
Lavergne is required to register as a sex offender for life because of his conviction, but he filed a petition on May 31 of this year to be relieved of that obligation.
A hearing had been set for August.
“Since defendant’s release from incarceration and parole, defendant has maintained a clean record,” the request states.
Lavergne was in prison when most of the unsolved slayings of eight women in Jefferson Davis Parish happened. Those killings occurred in and around Jennings from May 2005 through August 2009.