How a Serial Rapist Was Finally Caught Thanks to a Suitcase and an Eagle-Eyed Private Investigator
Inna Budnytska was found naked, beaten and bloodied, with no memory of what had happened to her on Feb. 21, 2005. A suitcase would hold the key to how she got there.
It was Feb. 21, 2005, when she was found naked, beaten and bloodied, with no memory of what had happened to her.
Inna Budnytska, then 21, woke up a day after being taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. She was in agonizing pain. Her right eye socket had been shattered, her head had severe trauma, Vanity Fair would later report. She had been raped.
Budnytska was so severely injured she couldn't speak, but she was able to write her name down on a piece of paper, as well as contact info for her lawyer, a detail that would seem odd to detectives at the time, making them wonder if the young woman, who was Ukrainian, was tangled up in something fishy.
In reality, the answer was much simpler; Budnytska had filed a lawsuit against her employer, a cruise line, after she was injured on the job, according to ABC's "20/20." She had been staying at a Miami-area hotel, the Airport Regency, on the company's dime while she recovered. Her attorney, Mitchell Lipcon, was the only person she knew who could help her.
"I didn't know nobody," she told "20/20" in a two-hour special set to air Friday. "I was alone."
How fortunate that the hotel would end up providing the key to solving the attack. But it would take private investigator Ken Brennan to crack it.
The Disappearing Woman
As time passed, Budnytska was desperate to recall what had happened to her.
She remembered that the morning she was found — face down on the ground in a cul-de-sac by a passing utility worker — it was dark and cold. What stands out, she told "20/20," was how helpless she felt.
"I couldn't stand up," Budnytska said. "I could not walk."
But what actually happened remained a mystery. "I was in shock," she said.
Meanwhile Miami-Dade investigators were working on the case, led by Det. Alan Foote. The airport hotel, which had an extensive surveillance system, was the last place that Budnytska was seen on camera.
She walked through the lobby at 3:41 a.m. and was not caught on surveillance footage again.
The next time police could pinpoint her whereabouts, she was in the cul-de-sac at 8:30 a.m.
Trying to work out how Budnytska got out of her room and to the cul-de-sac, miles away, police checked out her hotel room balcony and foliage below for signs she'd been spirited away out of sight of the cameras. But they couldn't find any.
The front desk attendant, whom Budnytska was captured speaking to, also briefly fell under suspicion as he had a master key to all the rooms. A DNA test ruled him out, though.
As her fractured memories of the night began to come back, Budnytska told Foote she believed a pair of Caucasian men were to blame. She vaguely recalled being taken down a staircase and to a car, where a laughing man raped her. She had been having nightmares about the attack, though, she told "20/20," and struggled to tell fact from fiction.
Cameras showed none of this, however, and the case grew cold.
"We reached a dead end on that point," Foote told "20/20," admitting he was frustrated with Budnytska. "It just didn't fit."
For her part, Budnytska sued the hotel, claiming its lax security had facilitated her attack.
The hotel, which denied wrongdoing, hired Brennan, the P.I., to look into her claims.
The Man With the Suitcase
Brennan, a former cop from Long Island, New York, was fascinated with the case, and knew that if he had any hope of cracking it, he would need Foote's cooperation.
Foote was reluctant, Brennan told Vanity Fair in 2010. But Brennan convinced him it would be beneficial to both of them.
“Look, you and I both know there’s no f***ing way you can investigate this case,” Brennan said he told Foote. "... If I figure out who did it, you get the arrest. I won’t do anything to f*** it up for you.”
Foote gave in, thinking nothing could come of it, according to Vanity Fair.
But something did.
Brennan focused on the hotel surveillance footage, certain the answer lay there. "You had to watch each and every frame on every video," he told "20/20"
And gradually, Brennan crossed off each and every person captured on camera, save one: a man hauling a suitcase.
"There's a big, large, black man standing with [Budnytska], and she just has a quick conversation with him," said Brennan. "They get onto the elevator together."
It was 3:41 a.m., the last time Budnytska was seen on surveillance footage.
About two hours later, the same man is captured on camera again, this time with a suitcase. As the man drags the bag behind him out of the elevator, it sticks on the gap between the car and the lobby floor. He gives it an extra pull, a moment barely discernible, as though he's dragging something heavy.
"A light bulb went off and I said, 'This is the guy, and she's in that suitcase,'" he said.
To Catch a Rapist
Thanks to some nifty detective work, Brennan was eventually able to figure out the man had been working for a company called Centerplate, which was running concessions for the Miami Boat Show the week Budnytska was attacked.
His name? Michael Lee Jones.
Jones was tracked down to Frederick, Maryland, in spring 2006. Foote, who still wasn't convinced of Brennan's theory, interviewed Jones, who denied having anything to do with the attack and agreed to provide a DNA sample.
Brennan also spoke to Jones while they awaited the results of the DNA test.
"Basically he told me, you know, 'I don't know what you're talking about, I don't know who you're talking about,'" he recalled. But Brennan was convinced he had his man.
And the DNA test proved him right. Jones was arrested and charged with kidnapping and sexual battery.
The case collapsed, however. The DNA test showed the two had had sex, not that there had been a rape, and Budnytska's murky memory of the events didn't help things. She wasn't a reliable witness to the crime committed against her.
"We believe they couldn't prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt," Jones' defense attorney C. Michael Cornely told "20/20."
Prosecutors settled with Jones, who was sentenced to just two years in prison after pleading guilty to the lesser charge of sexual assault.
After so much work, this would have been extremely disheartening to most, but Brennan was convinced Jones was a serial rapist who would strike again. He pressed Miami-Dade police to add Jones' DNA to the FBI's national database, CODIS, hoping that one day it could prove the key to solving a different crime.
The DNA matched that recovered from the scene of a rape in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in December 2005, nine months after the attack on Budnytska. It also matched that of two earlier rapes in New Orleans in May and June 2003.
When he finished his sentence in Florida, Jones, who became known as the "suitcase rapist" for what happened to Budnytska, was extradited to Colorado to stand trial in that case. There, in 2009, Jones was sentenced to 24 years to life in prison after he was convicted. In 2015, Jones pleaded guilty to two counts of forcible rape in the New Orleans attacks and was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
For Budnytska, it was a relief. "The criminal is where he's supposed to be," she told "20/20."
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