Monday, June 10, 2013

Terrilynn Monette's Case and Echoes of Mitrice Richardson

Latest Update, August 16: Negligible alcohol and no drugs found in Terrilynn Monette's system, says coroner's toxicology report. Read at WWLTV site.

Monette's car with her body was found
in Bayou St. John. Mourners have left
flowers in her memory.
Terrilynn Monette's death may have been ruled a drowning with no foul play, but what I remember most about this story is that a man, a supposed acquaintance, claims to have left her in her black Honda that night around 4:00 a.m. He claims he left her "to sleep off" her alcohol, but the bartender who served her at Parlay's Bar on Harrison Avenue in New Orleans said she didn't appear drunk.

For me, this man who left her supposedly drunk in her car lacked moral conscience in that moment. It's not as though New Orleans is the world's safest city. This account of the evening causes me to recall the story of Mitrice Richardson in California, the callous way in which she was handled by strangers.
Mitrice Richardson [was a] 24-year-old black woman from South Los Angeles who was arrested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on Sept. 16 for not paying a $89.21 restaurant bill in upscale Malibu. After her arrest, she was released at 1:25 in the morning without her cell phone or her purse and no transportation because the police had impounded her 1990 Honda Civic in which they say she had less than an ounce of marijuana. Her purse and cell phone were in the car with her identification, according to her family, but the police say she had identification. After that, she vanished. With the exception of a few sightings here and there, the 5 ft 5 young woman just disappeared.
It turned out that Mitrice was experiencing some sort of mental illness episode when this happened. Her body was later found in a Malibu, Ca., ravine. No, Terrilyn Monette was not arrested, but she was left to wander off alone in a less than sober state by people who felt no responsibility to ensure her safety.

Formerly missing Terrilynn Monette
WWL-TV reports that the New Orleans coroner has confirmed through dental records that the body found in St. John Bayou this weekend is that the beloved elementary school teacher. From California, she gladly relocated to New Orleans, and did so well at her job she was nominated for Teacher of the Year.

Although this tragic story unfolded over the last few months in my city, New Orleans, I have not blogged about this case before not because I didn't think it was worth writing about or because it didn't disturb me but because it disturbed me so much. I empathized with her mother, Toni Enclade, and offer my condolences to her and the family now.

I also applaud State Rep. Austin Badon (not always a politician I support) for putting his clout behind the search, sticking it out, and making the search for this young woman a priority. I salute Slidell police officer Mark Michaud as well for deciding Saturday morning to help again. He used his sonar equipment and diving expertise to find the body and did so in about three hours. Since she went missing in March, numerous people of all backgrounds, including a search group from Texas, have been involved in looking for clues to Terrilynn's disappearance and her car or body.

I have an adult daughter who likes to go out with friends, sometimes friends she's only recently met, and learning that the last time a human saw Terrilynn Monette alive was when an acquaintance left her outside a bar on Harrison Avenue at 4:00 in the morning really rattled me. It rattled me enough that I lectured my grown daughter about the importance of knowing the people better with whom she parties. In this era of social media, people quickly claim as friends people they barely know who may care little for others' well-being.

This story has troubled me to the point that I have even found myself driving at times down Marconi Avenue between Harrison and Robert E. Lee Boulevard, a route the teacher was assumed to have taken early in the search. Traveling beside one of City Park's lagoons, I have wondered whether she may have swerved into the water that night and somehow her car remained hidden. I have also wondered whether she was one more abducted woman in this port city.

I live not too far from the part of Harrison Avenue in Lakeview where the teacher was last seen alive, a predominantly white section. The racial make-up of the area is not an indictment of any kind, just a fact, and I have never had a bad experience there. Since I was a baby, my family's home has been minutes away in what historically been called Gentilly, in its predominantly "black section" two blocks from Harrison where it meets Paris Avenue. My mother, now deceased, used to teach at Hynes Elementary School in the Lakeview section. Down Harrison, through City Park, over the bayou--that was the way home.

Today I live in that house with my daughter and son, and we often pick up fish at the Lakeview grocery store. In fact, my son, when he had only recently learned to drive, totaled my daughter's car at the corner of Marconi and Harrison while on his way to that store.

The nearest Starbucks is on Harrison in Lakeview, too. I hit it more than I should, and I stop at Chase bank, pass by Parlay's Bar, and drive down the avenue. For the last few months when I've driven down Harrison, I've seen the flyers with her face, at least one outside Parlay's, and I've continued onward, over the canal and Marconi, through City Park, and across the bridge over Bayou St. John where Terrilynn's car and body were found.

I write these details about the area and how I and my family have experienced the community because it's all so familiar, so close to home. Unlike the criminal justice experts I've heard talk about this case, I would not have turned left on Marconi to get to Robert E. Lee as they have repeatedly assumed Terrilynn did. The NOPD said that a traffic camera caught the teacher in her car turning left on Marconi, but I don't think the public has seen a moving picture of the turn. We've seen a still shot of her car at that intersection.

For a number of reasons, I've been wondering if the police saw the photo of her car and wrongly assumed she turned left. If I had seen the photo, unless it showed the car actually turning, I would have assumed she continued straight in a straight line because that's the way I go. I continue down Harrison all the way to Paris Avenue, driving by habit through the black section of Harrison Avenue. Most likely Terrilyn would not have gone out of her way either to dodge the black section of Harrison Avenue anymore than I would, any more than my mother and father did, any more than I and my daughter would.

The teacher's apartment building is at the corner of Robert E. Lee and Paris. On my way to the classes at UNO, I've seen the yellow ribbons awaiting her return. She lived nearer the lake than I do, so she would have turned left when she came to Paris not right as I would, but the night of her death, if the coroner's cause of death is correct, she never made it that far.

Perhaps noticing that the police may have jumped to conclusions about her route home means nothing, but the NOPD has been accused of mismanaging the case. Regardless of the NOPD's issues. Rep. Badon drew in the state's Wildlife and Fisheries agency and had people searching everywhere, including Bayou St. John. The mystery remains how did professionals miss her car when they searched the bayou before. A scientist may have to answer that question. (If you want to read more details on the Terrilynn Monette case, the best article I've seen so far is by Times Picayune reporter Ramon Antonio Vargas.)

Saturday, June 8, after attending a cousin's funeral, I almost drove down Wisner to Harrison. If I had, I would have seen divers searching for her car, but I decided on a different route. The next day, coming through the park from Starbucks, I crossed the bayou and saw the flowers left on the bridge in Terrilynn's memory.

Her case is another one of those saddening, frightening stories that makes me look askance at my daughter when she's off to meet a group of people she barely knows to go to places that seem foreign to me despite being right here in our city. I remember then how many times my parents watched me head into the night with friends, how they urged me to be careful.

We have to watch our adult children go as we once did, out into the world fearlessly, and we must let them go as Terrilynn's mother had to let her go across the country to New Orleans. Once they are adults, all we can do is beg them, "Be careful, please." And later some of us pray or do what we must do to ward off worry. I have learned to look forward to sighing in relief every time one of my children comes home safely.

I hope that Toni Enclade knows that she did all that she could for her baby. My heart goes out to this mother of a fearless daughter, knowing life for her has not been the same since she learned Terrilynn was missing, and it will never be the same again. But I hope that her heart will heal as best a mother's can after losing her precious child.


Simply Being Me ..S. Marie ♥ said...

Hey there. I randomly came across your blog..and i was touched by it. I actually knew Terrilynn. My heartbreaks for her mother because she is absolutely devasted. It great to know that people like you are still thinking of her..and keeping her in their prayers. Terrilynn and I had very similar qualities/personalities and this whole ordeal has caused me to rethink my behavior (not that is bad) I just do a lot of things alone. Great Read.

LM said...

The story of Terrilynn Monette has been with me for a long time, still bothers me to this day. Thanks for posting.
A New Orleans native