Woman Left for Dead: What Happened in Miami Airport Hotel Mystery?

Dogged detective scours surveillance video to find elusive violent criminal.

April 1, 2011— -- The discovery of a woman's body -- naked, unconscious and beaten -- at an undeveloped cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Miami in 2005 was the beginning of a mystery that led to countless dead ends and an outcome that would shock even the investigators pursuing the case.

"She was dumped out and left for dead," Miami-Dade police Det. Alan Foote said of the victim, who was found curled in the grass by a utility worker on the morning of Feb. 21, 2005.

The victim didn't have any identification, so police canvassed houses near the dumping site, hoping someone would remember something, but "we got no response there," Foote said.

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The next day, the victim emerged from unconsciousness, and through a fog of pain tried to communicate what happened to her.

"I remember voices around me; somebody asked me what was my name," she said.

She was unable to speak, but scrawled some basic information on a piece of paper. Detectives learned that her name was Inna Budnytska, she was Ukrainian and she worked for one of the many cruise lines that operate in Miami.

She also wrote down her attorney's name and phone number -- a detail that Foote found "very unusual."

"Was she into something criminal?" he wondered.

"Maybe they thought it was unusual that someone would ask for an attorney, but this woman had a horrific assault and probably was reaching for anything that she could," said attorney, Mitchell Lipcon.

In fact, Budnytska, now 28, had been injured on the ship where she worked, and had filed suit against the cruise line.

"I didn't know nobody," she said. "I was alone up here. So the only one person who I knew, that was my attorney."

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While rehabilitating from her injury, Budnytska was being housed by the cruise line at the Airport Regency, a local hotel about 10 miles east of the cul-de-sac where she was found. The hotel would prove crucial to the mystery -- especially its sophisticated security system.

"We have 16 cameras covering the whole perimeter of the hotel," said hotel vice president Jose Vazquez. "Those cameras have a motion sensor detector. We have two security guards at night on duty. So we can see anything that happens."

Foote obtained a pile of DVDs from the hotel's cameras and started scanning them for any evidence of the crime.

Victim Struggles to Remember Events: 'I Was in Shock'

Once she was able to speak, Budnytska provided a statement about her activities on the night of the attack. She said she'd gone out with a friend that night to a restaurant in Coconut Grove, Fla., returning by taxi, by herself, shortly after midnight.

Security cameras recorded her leaving the hotel again at 3:33 a.m. to buy a phone card to call her mother in Ukraine, returning just seven minutes later at 3:40 a.m. Budnytska then was recorded walking to the lobby elevators at 3:41am ... and was never seen by the cameras again.

The next thing Budnytska said she remembered was regaining consciousness for a brief moment at the cul-de-sac, where she was discovered at 8:30 a.m. that morning.

"It was very cold ... and dark," she recalled. "I couldn't stand up. I could not walk."

Budnytska remembered that much, but everything that happened in between the elevator and the cul-de-sac was a total blank.

"She has no clue what the heck happened to her," Foote said.

"The memory was not clear because ... I was in shock," she said.

Cops inspected the landscaping below Budnytska's fourth-story balcony on the off-chance she might have been lowered or dropped from there, unseen by the security cameras.

Foote also began following other leads, including interviewing the hotel's night manager, George Perez, who had a master key to all the rooms.

Perez attracted investigators' attention because he was seen on hotel surveillance video talking with Budnytska at the hotel front desk "several times," Foote said.

Then, at 2:16 a.m., there was an odd encounter -- Perez left the front desk unattended and went into the elevator with Budnytska. He was gone for approximately 15 minutes, and then returned to the desk -- alone.

Perez initially told Foote that he helped Budnytska into her room because she was intoxicated. In fact, he later admitted that he'd been socializing with Budnytska.

"I was friends with her in the workplace; I also had a friendship with her outside of the workplace," he said. "I thought very highly of her."

As the investigation advanced, one new piece of evidence emerged: Budnytska wasn't just beaten, she also was raped -- and DNA from her attacker had been recovered from her body. Samples were obtained voluntarily from Perez and another suspect, a friend of Budnytska's, Peter Dimouleas.

Budnytska also began to piece together more memories of the attack, filling in the time gap between the time she last was seen on the elevator cameras and the cul-de-sac ... but she could only recall fragments.

"I saw dreams, I saw nightmares," she said. "For me, it was very difficult to realize what was the reality, what was not the reality."

Budnytska told Foote that at least two men were responsible -- Caucasian men, possibly with Spanish accents.

"I don't remember the faces. ... I remember, a person putting, like, a pillow or something," she said. "And then it's dark, you know. It's just like a feeling that you cannot breathe."

Budnytska even tried hypnosis to clarify her memories. She said she remembered being carried down a back staircase out into a car, driving somewhere and being raped in the back seat while "somebody was laughing."

But surveillance cameras didn't show that, and Foote's frustration grew, he said.

"We reached a dead end on that point. It just didn't fit," he said.

He suspected there was more to Budnytska's story than she was able -- or willing -- to tell.

Like many hotels, the Airport Regency has a key-card security system that logs each time a guest swipes their key to enter a room. Security cameras clocked Budnytska entering the elevator for the final time at 3:41 a.m. But the log of key swipes at her door showed her entering her room at 3:58 a.m. -- an unexplained gap of 17 minutes.

That led police to suspect that Budnytska might be a prostitute. They theorized that during the 17 minutes she had gone to service a John, an encounter that could have led to the attack. But Foote said they found "absolutely zilch, nothing to indicate that she was as prostitute," and decided that was not true. Ultimately the time gap also could be explained by two separate clock systems that were not in sync.

For months, the case went nowhere. Meanwhile, Budnytska filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the hotel, citing lax security. Denying any wrongdoing, the hotel hired a private investigator named Ken Brennan to investigate her claims.

A former policeman in Long Island, N.Y., and a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Brennan was fascinated by the mystery surrounding the case and convinced Foote to share information.

"I knew there might be a little reluctance to share any information with me," Brennan said. "I said 'Alan, I'm a good investigator. I'm not going to mess this up on you -- just let me run with it for you.'"

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One of the first things Foote shared was the DNA results on the two preliminary suspects. There was no match and both Perez and Dimouleas were exonerated.

"I knew that the answer to the mystery had to be in those surveillance tapes somewhere," Brennan said. "You had to watch each and every frame on every video."

Slowly but surely, Brennan eliminated every suspect -- everybody but one.

"On the video, she goes out of the hotel early in the morning," Brennan said. "When she comes back about a half-hour later, there's a big, large, black man standing with her, and she just has a quick conversation with him. They get onto the elevator together."

The man can be seen entering the elevator with Budnytska at 3:41 a.m., then exiting the hotel with a suitcase at 5:28 a.m. But Brennan thought there was something strange about the way the suspect gave the suitcase a strange extra tug to get it loose from a gap in the elevator floor as he was leaving.

"I've done this, and you've done this countless times coming out of an elevator: Did you ever get it stuck so bad that you had to yank on it like that?" asked Brennan. "A light bulb went off and I said, 'This is the guy, and she's in that suitcase.'"

Brennan's theory: The man attacked Budnytska sometime after they entered the elevator together, dragged her body out of the hotel in the suitcase, drove off with her, dumped her body at the cul-de-sac and then returned.

Searching for clues to the man's identity on the security tapes, Brennan noticed that he frequently was accompanied by another man who had the word "Verado" written on the back of his t-shirt.

An Internet search turned up a hit.

"It showed that Mercury Marine made a brand new outboard engine by the name of Verado," Brennan said. "I said, 'Bingo, they're working at a boat show.'"

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The Miami Boat Show was held the week of the crime, and Mercury was a major exhibitor, but none of the company's employees stayed at the Airport Regency.

Brennan discovered that the only shirts given out during the boat show were to food court employees working for a company named Centerplate, but the company runs concessions at events across the country and couldn't confirm if any employees stayed at the Regency.

About two weeks later, Brennan got a call: Someone remembered a man at one of the company's locations in New Orleans who matched the description, who'd been hired for the boat show out of the New Orleans area.

Luckily for Brennan, he had an in with the New Orleans police -- an old friend, Capt. Ernest Demma.

Brennan asked for Demma's help finding any information on his suspect, and soon confirmed that the mystery man was working at the Superdome when Hurricane Katrina hit.

"We were able to put the name with the body and come up with a hard description on the person he was looking for," said Demma.

The man's name was Michael Lee Jones.

"I had a name," Brennan said. "I was able to go back to the hotel, get their records. And sure enough, there's a Michael Lee Jones there.

"I knew I had my guy," he said.

But unfortunately, in the wake of Katrina, Jones -- like countless others in New Orleans -- had left. By the time of Brennan's investigation in 2006, he was no longer with Centerplate and no one knew where he was.

So Brennan built a master list of the major catering and concession companies in the country. He called them one-by-one looking for a Michael Jones.

Near the bottom of the list was a company called Ovations, based in Tampa, Fla. After a subpoena was issued, the company confirmed that Michael Jones was on its payroll and was managing concessions at a minor league baseball park in Frederick, Md.

Private Detective: 'I'm Going to Be Coming for You'

In spring 2006, Jones was living in a modest apartment in Frederick, Md., 1,000 miles away from the Airport Regency in Miami. Foote was reluctant to collect a DNA sample from a man he believed was "just another lead.

"I'm not quite sold on it yet," he said of his thinking at the time.

But Brennan was certain and convincing.

"I knew he was the guy," Brennan said.

In April 2006, Foote interviewed Jones, who confirmed he was in Miami working at the boat show and staying at the Airport Regency when Inna Budnytska was attacked. But he denied ever having sex with anybody at the hotel and said he would "absolutely" provide a DNA sample.

It would take months for the DNA test to come back and, in the meantime, Brennan made his own trip to Maryland and got Michael Jones to meet him at the ballpark.

"I interviewed him for three days," Brennan said, "and basically he told me, you know, 'I don't know what you're talking about, I don't know who you're talking about.'"

Brennan concluded those sessions with one final message: "I'm going to be back, and I'm going to be coming for you."

When Jones' DNA results proved a match, he was arrested and interrogated.

He maintained his total innocence "right to the very end, the bitter end," Brennan said.

Jones was charged with sexual battery and kidnapping, but the case nearly fell apart before it went to trial.

Brennan believed that after beating and raping Budnytska in his room, Jones stuffed her in his suitcase, walked out of the hotel without attracting the attention of the night manager George Perez, and drove off at 5:31 a.m.

His theory was that Jones dumped the body, turned around, and made it back to the hotel at 6:21 a.m. with time to spare before he was to start work that day at the boat show. He sauntered into the hotel restaurant at 7:59 a.m. and joined his friend at breakfast. Then they headed out to the parking lot and off to work.

But Budnytska refused to accept that theory, instead sticking to her original story that the attack happened in her room. And most of all, she'd originally told police she'd been attacked by a number of Caucasian men, not a lone African American.

Her muddy memory could have been the result of the massive head trauma she sustained, or perhaps Jones slipped her some kind of drug. In any case, she made a flimsy witness.

"So unfortunately, the prosecution has to look at the fact that: Is a jury going to believe this flip-flopping?" Foote said.

Besides the circumstantial evidence on the surveillance video, the case started getting thin. The DNA match only proved that sex took place -- not necessarily rape. Under interrogation, Jones never confessed to Brennan or Foote. The suitcase never was recovered. And unfortunately, just like Michael Jones's rental car, his hotel room had been cleaned countless times in the year before he was ever identified, probably destroying any evidence.

"We believe that they couldn't prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt," said Jones' defense attorney, C. Michael Cornely.

Instead, Jones ended up pleading to a reduced charge and the case never went before a jury. His prison sentence was just two years.

"I was angry," Budnytska said. "I couldn't do anything. I'm not familiar with the justice system. But I was upset inside."

In fact, everyone involved in the case was upset -- everyone except Brennan, who suspected this was not Jones' first crime.

While reviewing the security camera footage, Brennan was taken aback by Jones' air of nonchalance -- what he read as the demeanor of a practiced serial rapist.

"There couldn't have been anybody more cool, more calm, more nonchalant, than this guy here," he said.

Brennan knew Jones' work took him to cities all over the country, giving him plenty of opportunity to meet new women and then disappear.

Brennan convinced the Miami-Dade police to enter Jones' DNA into CODIS, the FBI's national database.

More than a year later, in Colorado Springs, Colo., a detective received a call notifying her there was a match in CODIS to a cold case.

The crime occurred in December 2005, about nine months after the attack on Inna Budnystka in Miami and about three months after Michael Jones left New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He was working concessions at the Colorado Springs World Arena before taking the job at the ballpark in Maryland.

The Colorado victim -- Jennifer Roessler, 41 -- was seen leaving a local convenience store just minutes before she was attacked.

"She was by herself," said Colorado Springs Detective Terry Thrumston. "She was a woman, alone, walking at 2:30, 3 o'clock in the morning.

"She accepted a ride from a stranger, who took her back to her apartment," Thrumston added. "He asked for a drink of water; then she asked him to leave. He then sexually assaults her."

In an interview with Thrumston, Roessler described her attacker as "calm ... and I knew this happened before. I've just, I had a feeling this has happened before, because he was too calm."

Thrumston said Roessler "wanted to confront him. She wanted justice for what happened."

But Roessler's decision to let Jones into her apartment raised the possibility the sex was consensual. The case hit another stumbling block when, just before the start of Jones's trial in January 2009, Thrumston got tragic news.

"I kept trying to get a hold of her and couldn't," she said. "I didn't find out 'til the beginning of December that she had passed away."

Roessler had died from natural causes unrelated to her rape.

Without the star witness, the best chance to put Michael Jones away for a long sentence was fading fast. But Thrumston wasn't going to let it go.

Both Foote and Budnytska testified at the Colorado trial.

"I wanted so much just to look into his eyes, and just ... I had a question: 'Why me? What did I do?' I mean, 'Why me?'" she asked.

However, another DNA hit also revealed a third victim, a woman who has agreed to be identified as "Rachel," who, in New Orleans in 2003, may have been Jones' first victim. Her story had a familiar ring: a stranger in a car, a ride and a rape.

"I screamed with everything I had," she said. "And the reality was, is just -- there was nobody there."

"She was able to describe exactly what had happened to her six years later," Thrumston said.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence against Jones was a composite sketch Rachel made with New Orleans police of the man who raped her.

"It looked almost identical to what Michael Lee Jones looked [like] in the courtroom," said Thrumston.

At trial, the defense tried to argue the sex with Roessler was consensual. But with DNA hits from multiple women all claiming rape and Rachel's sketch, the jury didn't buy it.

"Within a couple hours, the jury came back and said he's guilty," Thrumston recalled.

Jones was sentenced to 24 years to life in prison. By the time he's eligible for parole, he'll be just shy of his 60th birthday.

"I feel happy," Budnytska said. "The criminal is where he's supposed to be, and he is never gonna hurt nobody in the future."

"You need to go through this -- as painful and as traumatic and embarrassing as all of that might be," Rachel said. "You have to do that, because you never know how many other women may have been impacted by this person."

For Brennan, it's a fitting end to a tough case

"I've been doing this since 1975," said Brennan. "In the multitude of cases I worked in my time ... this was, by far, the most rewarding."

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