NEW ORLEANS, La. -- After three months and seven days, the search for Terrilyn Monette finally ended on Saturday. A volunteer diver from the Slidell Police Department using sonar spotted Monette’s car in Bayou St. John.
After picking up a signal from Monette’s car at Wisner and Harrison avenues, Officer Mark Michaud went into the murky water and verified the schoolteacher’s car by her license plate.
With identification of Monette’s body and an autopsy that shows she drowned, it appears the arduous case is now over.
But for New Orleans police, accident investigators continue to piece together exactly how the Monette drove to her death after a night of drinking with friends at a Harrison Avenue bar.
And at the top ranks of the NOPD, commanders are looking at whether mistakes were made and what could have solved the case sooner.
"Every time we have an event like this,” NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas said, “we look to see how can we do it in a way that's better, that's more efficient, that's more effective.
The search was one of the most intensive in recent New Orleans history. Aided by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the FBI, Secret Service and dozens of volunteers, police searched miles of bayous and lagoons in and around City Park and the Lakefront.
But one piece of information released by police early on appears to have broadened the search rather than narrow it. Based on a picture from a surveillance camera at Harrison and Marconi, police said Monette the video showed that Monette turned left on Marconi.
But Eyewitness Investigates raised questions about that information within hours after Monette was found in the water at Harrison and Wisner, a location indicating that she probably didn't turn onto Marconi after all.
Serpas now says that the video only showed a black car “similar” to Monette's, and that police were never certain it was her.
"The vehicles never had a picture that was sufficient to positively identify the car through the license plate and we couldn't see the license plate," Serpas said.
The police chief said the ambiguous image didn’t stop investigators from casting a wide search – including along Harrison Avenue – but he admitted that a definitive picture could have narrowed the search.
In the end, about two dozen cars were pulled from Bayou St. John between Robert E. Lee and Esplanade before the volunteer diver went down one more time and discovered Monette’s black Honda Accord.
Serpas said the fuzzy traffic camera video has been sent to the FBI to see if something more could have been done.
"Those videos have been sent for further forensic analysis by the FBI to maybe do the best that we could to make those videos better and easier to read possibly. We just don't know yet if that's going to be the case," Serpas said.
As Monette’s family returns to California, Serpas said his department will continue to look for clues as to why Monette drove into the water, as well as how similar investigations could be improved in the future.
"These investigations are like big puzzles,” he said. “They're like big jigsaw puzzles. And you want to get better every time. You want to be quicker at picking out what the border is. You want to be quicker at picking out what the middle picture is that you're trying to create."
One major drawback to the Monette investigation was the lack of an eyewitness. Nobody reported seeing Monette or her car after she drove away from Parlay’s at about 5 a.m. on March 2.
Serpas also noted that the area where Monette was found had been previously checked by sonar, but came up negative. He said the department is checking whether enhanced sonar equipment is available for these types of searches.
"How do we get better at understanding the clarity of the water?” Serpas asked. “How do we get better at using sonar technology? Is there better sonar technology? Those are things we always want to think about."