Terrilyn Monette’s discovery brings relief, yet further investigation
17th June 2013 · 0 Comments
By Nayita Wilson
Life in the days ahead will be one day at a time for Toni Encalade, mother of Terrilyn Monette, the 26-year-old Jefferson Parish teacher whose mysterious disappearance resulted in a months-long search that ended with Monette’s remains being found inside of her sunken Honda Accord in Bayou St. John near the intersection of Wisner and Harrison Avenues in New Orleans.
“We’re doing okay—as best as can be expected considering the circumstances,” Encalade said.
Relief and sadness enveloped Monette’s family and the multitude of supporters who prayed, volunteered and sought clues into the disappearance when Monette’s car was lifted out of Bayou St. John last Saturday, June 15.
It appears that no one would give up on the search.
Earlier that week, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) confirmed that the investigation was ongoing despite hard evidence, valid leads and an officer’s reassignment.
The Friday night before the discovery, members of Monette’s family, who have been commuting to New Orleans since the search began, held a prayer vigil and continued their grassroots search for the teacher.
Earlier that Friday, Louisiana State Representative Austin Badon and Slidell Police Officer Mark Michaud held a mid-day meeting at Badon’s house to map out alternative routes that Monette may have taken to get to her home. The two then established a plan to search other areas of Bayou St. John that entire weekend if needed.
Badon, who emerged as a leading figure in the search, said he became involved in the search as a “humanitarian effort” after seeing the pain in Encalade’s face after the story broke.
Since that time, he’s led supplemental efforts that extended the search beyond NOPD’s investigation. Those efforts included coordinating the assistance of local towing companies to pull cars out of the bayou and requesting the assistance of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Louisiana State Police.
“When State Representative Badon got involved, it kind of gave it a little bit more of life,” said Michaud, a police officer and member of the dive team for the Slidell Police Department. Michaud volunteered to work alongside the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and its partners at the onset of the case and assisted with dives throughout the targeted area.
Ultimately, it was Michaud’s instincts, equipment and expertise that led to the discovery. Michaud contacted Badon days prior to the discovery to see about extending the sonar searches and dive efforts because things simply weren’t adding up. Using sonar equipment, he searched areas near Harrison and Wisner Avenue and found six potential targets the day Monette’s car was recovered. His first target was precise; it was indeed Monette’s car.
After inspecting the car and taking certain measures to preserve it for NOPD’s investigation, he notified NOPD, which sent crews to the team immediately.
“It couldn’t have been handled by anybody any better,” he said of NOPD’s response. “It was impressive watching them and how much it mattered to them,” he said.
As an officer, Michaud said he also understands the exhaustion NOPD may have experienced given the case’s challenges as well as the political pressures that may have been evident.
In Michaud’s efforts to re-engage the search with a fresh perspective, the challenges that plagued NOPD’s investigation became relevant to his search.
“You don’t disappear in 2013,” Michaud said, adding that advanced technology and surveillance make it hard for individuals to disappear without a trace nowadays. Michaud said that was one of several factors that led him to want to search the rest of the bayou.
Other factors included the lack of valid tips. Michaud said a Slidell burglary case once received 500 to 1,000 calls within a matter of days in comparison the 200 tips investigators received in Monette’s case over two months.
Her status in the community was another factor. As a teacher, “Terrilyn was driving on the best stereotype,” Michaud said.
But the ultimate component was clearing up uncertainties that Monette’s mother may have had whether or not the car was found in the bayou.
“I wanted to give her something before I left. That was just killing me because I had the means to help,” he said.
With the most critical phase of this investigation solved, the Orleans Parish Corner’s Office determined drowning was the cause of death. The coroner’s office will also perform standard toxicology tests and will release those findings to NOPD.
NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas said his detectives are working to identify what brought about the tragedy.
That includes reconstructing the circumstances that led to the incident and enhancing any video surveillance that’s relevant to the case.
The surveillance matter remains a sore topic for Monette’s family.
Encalade said, “The car they apparently saw that was on footage was not her car. I just feel for future cases they may want to do a more thorough investigation and be more positive before they inform parents of something that they are not 100 percent sure of.”
Monette’s family and NOPD are not alone in their search for answers. Concerned citizens frequent the area where Monette’s car was found to pay their respects and to try to make sense of it all.
Three days after Monette’s car was found, Buddy Coste, 77, spent about an hour at the site trying to drum up a conclusion. “It’s been a part of our lives since the girl’s been missing,” he said.
Another onlooker said apologetically, “I wish I had come out here when everything was fresh.”
A memorial service for Monette will take place in the auditorium of Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., Sat., June 22, at 3 p.m. The family is also considering a memorial service in New Orleans in July.
This article originally published in the June 17, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.