1 year later, a community still suffers - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

1 year later, a community still suffers

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LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) - The photos of Mickey Shunick still sit in the offices of Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft and Det. Stephen Bajat.

The details of the case - the daily routine of the Shunick task force, the way they learned of Shunick's disappearance a year ago - are still fresh in their minds.

Bajat gets a chill when he talks about arresting Brandon Scott Lavergne, the man who later confessed to Shunick's murder.

"We just kept saying, 'It's our job to bring her home,'" said Bajat, who led the task force that investigated her disappearance and death. "We knew there was some foul play early on. We had our hopes that maybe she was kept alive, but we're kind of realists. We were hoping for the best but we thought the worst had happened. Regardless, we still came in and trucked forward.

"Our goal was to bring her back to her family. We weren't going to stop."

The pain is still fresh for those who knew the university student, and for a community stunned by the abduction and killing.

"It's the most impacting case I've had," said former Assistant District Attorney Keith Stutes, lead prosecutor in the case. "I've had other cases that were emotional. This case I had a hard time to be able to talk without a wavy voice...She was just going home. She was just trying to get home and had she been about three minutes faster or he'd been about three minutes slower, she'd be home now. That's how cruel fate can be sometimes."

Shunick's mother, Nancy Rowe, says the pain never goes away.

"Suffice it to say our hearts are broken, and that is something we get up with, carry through the day and lie down at night with - a fist around the heart," Rowe wrote in an email. "I don't expect it to ever change. To us, it feels like Mickey was murdered yesterday, and always will.

"One of my friends says the burden will never get lighter, but perhaps our legs will become stronger," Rowe wrote. "I hope that is true."

Shunick was riding her bicycle home in the early morning hours on May 19, 2012 after spending the evening with friends. A surveillance camera captured her peddling past City Hall on St. Landry Street.

It is the last image taken before her death. A minute after she passed the camera, a white truck driven by Lavergne passed along the same route.

By late morning, when Shunick failed to show up for her brother's high school graduation, the family was worried. By 6:30 p.m., they had reported her missing to Lafayette police.

Within a few hours, word of her disappearance had spread and volunteers began what developed into a months-long search. The investigation eventually involved the Lafayette Police Department, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office, the FBI, U.S. marshals, state police and other agencies.

Shunick, 21, a senior anthropology major at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, was considered a ball of sunshine by her friends and family. She was an avid animal lover and gave horseback riding lessons to children.

It was more natural to see her peddling her bike than driving a car, and she even had a small tattoo of a bicycle on her ankle.

From the outset, investigators knew Shunick's disappearance wasn't a typical missing-person case.

She was known to check in regularly with people, and had plans to celebrate her 22nd birthday that weekend in New Orleans with friends.

Two days after Shunick disappeared, police set up a 24/7 tips line. Two weeks later, the department established a task force. Its only responsibility was to find Shunick.

At times, the information was almost overwhelming.

People thought they saw Shunick or her bicycle. Social media websites were inundated with theories, false alarms and embellished stories. Detectives obtained surveillance video footage from more than 350 businesses.

On May 27, 2012, two fishermen found her bicycle in the Atchafalaya Basin below the Interstate 10 bridge at Whiskey Bay. The search for her then focused in that area.

The task force fell into a pattern, Bajat said.

"We kind of got into a routine every morning," he recalled. "We printed out and assigned the tips. We had investigators that followed up on those. Every afternoon, we briefed. We did that day in and day out on every tip that came in until we had the one that led to Lavergne."

Sheriff's Capt. Jack Lightfoot said the core team of investigators fell quickly into place. Some were skilled at interrogation, while others had experience in analytics or forensics. Some were "outside the box" thinkers who looked at the case in a different way.

"You had people with a lot of experience, which is great, and you had people with no experience, which, believe it or not, is also great because they walk in with a fresh perspective," Lightfoot said. "For once, luck was on our side."

Stutes said he initially feared law enforcement would be unable to catch the suspect because of the randomness of the act. The police "did a grand job, a masterful job" of finding the white truck, he said, using interstate cameras to track the truck's movements.

The investigation drew national media attention, and Craft said that, even today, people from around the country are fascinated with the case.

"Our only regret has been that we didn't happen upon him (Lavergne) with her, that we didn't happen upon that accident when he hit her, that we didn't happen upon her riding her bike home and said, 'Hey, let's make sure you get home safe,'" he said.

While the task force worked behind the scenes, Shunick's disappearance galvanized the community. Thousands of volunteers searched wooded areas and abandoned properties across Acadiana, looking for any sign that Shunick had been there.

Private businesses also stepped up, providing an estimated $100,000 in services and hundreds of hours of work, Craft said. That included running sonar equipment at Whiskey Bay as well as forensic examinations of Lavergne's phone.

"When I tell you this community came together to help find this girl, it truly is a partnership of government agencies, private businesses and citizens, and that's what helped to solve this case," Craft said.

One of the key private organizations involved in the Shunick search was Texas Equusearch, which works across the country trying to find missing people. David Rader, director of Texas Equusearch's Ohio chapter, came to Lafayette three times last summer. Rader said he was joined by volunteers from Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Ohio.

Craft had a special pin made for the investigators. Rather than putting a Lafayette logo on the pin, Craft opted for the Louisiana state seal. That represents the dozens of police departments, sheriff's offices and investigators who came from across the state to provide resources, expertise and man hours in the search.

"This was not a Lafayette Parish thing," Craft said. "This was a true coming-together of a lot of different law enforcement agencies who helped us to make that case ... Most of the work was not very glamorous and not very appealing. It was a major investigation and took a whole lot of resources, but all of those resources working together is what led us to solve the case."

Lightfoot gives the credit to someone else.

"At the end of the day, the person who caught Brandon Lavergne is Mickey Shunick," he said. "At least she left the bread crumbs. We were able to put things together, but ultimately, she is the one responsible for identifying him. She did so in such a fashion that we could finally recognize it and put it together."

Lavergne emerged as a suspect within a few weeks after Shunick disappeared.

"There was no doubt that this was our guy," Lightfoot said, "but you have to dot the Is and cross the Ts, and that's where a lot of the work was."

Finally, on July 5, Lavergne was arrested. Bajat remembers the relief he felt.

"We knew we had him," Bajat said. "It was a relief to know we had him in custody and that he couldn't harm anyone else. It was gratifying to see that all the hard work and long hours paid off. ...At least we could do some justice to the family."

Lightfoot questioned Lavergne three times, and Lavergne finally confessed and led investigators to her body in early August in rural Evangeline Parish. Evidence suggests she fought fiercely against Lavergne, pretending to be dead and stabbing him repeatedly in a futile attempt to escape.

Stutes, too, credits Shunick for providing the evidence that put Lavergne behind bars for life. The fact that Lavergne had been injured helped answer questions about what happened between Lavergne and Shunick, and his efforts to keep those injuries secret indicated a struggle had occurred.

"She did as much to solve her case as the police did, by fighting back," Stutes said.

Josh Coen remembers well his friend Shunick's strength and courage.

"It was a horrific event," Coen said. "But she's become a real inspiration in my life and others, too. From the simple to the complicated, I think about her strength, and it gets me through it."

Coen said he learned from Shunick to never let anything keep him from moving forward. He believes she changed people across Acadiana and beyond.

"We've all been changed by this, and we've all grown in various ways," Coen said. "I think she's going to become a beacon of hope."

Coen said he plans to leave Lafayette to escape the vivid memories.

"It's been long enough that it doesn't bother me too much anymore. I just don't want to be here, I guess," Coen said. "I'm going to do something in my own way."

Coen keeps in touch with the Shunick family, occasionally visiting their home to make soap with Rowe or say hello to Shunick's pet pig and dog. Rowe invited him and other friends to take items from Shunick's room.

A ghost bike memorial now stands near the site where Shunick was abducted, and nonprofit organizations are being formed to carry on her interest in children and animals. Lavergne now sits in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, serving two life sentences for the murders of Shunick and Pate.

Stutes, the prosecutor, still thinks about Shunick often, and carries a keychain of a jumping horse with a "Mighty Mickey" on it that was given to him by her friends and family.

"I have (it) in my pocket and touch it every day," he said.

___

Information from: The Advertiser, http://www.theadvertiser.com

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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