Everyone loves a great detective’s tale, and in “The Case of the Vanishing Blonde,” a real-life private detective tracks down a heinous serial rapist that no one even knew they should be looking for. When hired by a prominent Miami hotel to track down how a beautiful young woman was abducted right under all their security cameras and left for dead miles away, private investigator Ken Brennan knew that there had to be an explanation and he was determined to track down the man responsible.
While first reported in the article written by Mark Bowden about “The Case of the Vanishing Blonde” in Vanity Fair in December 2010, the television series VANITY FAIR CONFIDENTIAL not only revisits the events that led to the miraculous capture of a vicious serial rapist, it provides current information about how he was then subsequently prosecuted in multiple jurisdictions — not only to provide justice for his victims, but to ensure this monster would never ever get out of prison.
In an exclusive interview, producer Marty Koughan talked about the case that should not only bring attention to a national police problem and galvanize more local law enforcement into providing the funding necessary to process the hundreds of thousands of rape kits sitting on their evidence shelves that could have led to cracking this case much sooner.
What is “The Case of the Vanishing Blonde” all about?
MARTY: It’s really the story of a fairly insidious serial rapist who would have never been caught if it wasn’t for the genius of a particular, persistent private investigator. And as you go through the story, you start to find out or realize just how many thin-threads this whole case was held together by and any one of them could have taken the whole thing down. It is a wonderful bit of mystery story and detective thinking that leads to putting a guy away who is a very bad man.
How current is this case?
MARTY: He went to prison, finally, in 2009, I believe and he is being tried this year in New Orleans for two more rapes. He was eventually convicted for a rape in Colorado Springs and he was convicted for the rape in Miami; and now two rapes in New Orleans have been determined to have been by Michael Lee Jones, and there is probably quite considerably more than that.
How did VANITY FAIR CONFIDENTIAL find out about this story?
MARTY: It was a story that ran in Vanity Fair magazine. That’s one of the real strengths of this series is that editors of Vanity Fair knew a good story when they see one. The best for us is that the writers of Vanity Fair are themselves terrific storytellers and they are characters in all our films, and they really do spin a great yarn. The gentleman who wrote the original article for Vanity Fair, Mark Bowden, he is the fella that wrote “Black Hawk Down” and a number of other great books. He is, again, a terrific storyteller.
Sounds like VANITY FAIR CONFIDENTIAL is picking and choosing through Vanity Fair’s archives a bit for their stories.
MARTY: Yes, we are. But as what often happens, as it happened in this case, we take the story the next step beyond because a lot of these stories are dated. So there is a lot in our story that did not appear in the original Vanity Fair article.
You had mentioned that this guy is being currently tried for additional crimes. Will VANITY FAIR CONFIDENTIAL be doing another update after that?
MARTY: It’s entirely possible, I suppose. They have not set his trial date for the two rapes, which they have determined that he committed in the city of New Orleans 14 years ago. So they have yet to set the trial date. He was just remanded to New Orleans from Colorado, where he is doing his 25 years-to-life prison sentence. Undoubtedly, he is going to get another life-term or two in New Orleans.
For the format of VANITY FAIR CONFIDENTIAL, do you you speak with the people involved or do you just report on it?
MARTY: The answer to that is: yes. We track down as many of the original people involved in the story as we can, and we always talk to the author of the Vanity Fair article. Again, selfishly, because these folks, both men and women, are terrific storytellers. They are wonderful to listen to.
Do you see the goal of VANITY FAIR CONFIDENTIAL to be just education or more informative? What is the purpose behind it?
MARTY: These are just great yarns. They are terrific mystery stories and terrific detective stories. There is a lot of humanity and passion in all of them, and they are all very different. They are the kind of stories that when you go out to a dinner party, you are going to say: “You wouldn’t believe what I just saw.” They are that kind of unbelievable story with turns and twists that people really remember.
So these are like true crime stories that you just want to bring to everyone’s attention then?
MARTY: This is all reality. The difference between our series and any of the others in the genre is that we do not use anything that is not absolutely authentic to the story. All the visuals, all the characters, all the source material is original material from the case or the investigation or whatever. We do no recreations or any of that sort of stuff. When you are looking at our show, everything you are seeing is real.
How many episodes are you working with on the show this season?
MARTY: I am a consulting producer for the entire series, so I am working on all 12. I produced “The Case Of the Vanishing Blonde” entirely, but I’ve had my hand on all of them in terms of writing and storytelling and I am the series narrator.
What was the criteria as you are looking back at the prior Vanity Fair investigations to determine which ones you want to feature on the show?
MARTY: Which ones would people just find a terrific story. It really is what it boils down to. Each one is just a terrific yarn and they are all different. The Madaline Murray O’Hare story is very different from the Robert Durst story on a million different levels, but both were absolutely riveting tales and both characters were irresistible.
Do you have any favorites that you have worked on so far?
MARTY: Gosh, I’m not sure I do. Like I’ve said, they are all different. I suppose my favorite would have to be the one that is coming up, “The Case of the Vanishing Blonde.” The more you dig into that case, the more you realize that this guy — a really bad, bad guy — as you will see in our story, he thought he had killed her. He beat her to a bloody-pulp and stuffed her into a suitcase and dumped her in a field. [Michael Lee Jones] thought she was dead. That’s how bad this guy is. But the more I found out about this case, the more I realized that if Ken Brennan [the private investigator] had not done everything he did and all the leaps in judgment and guess work that he did that worked out is astonishing. If he didn’t do all that, that guy, Michael Lee Jones, would still be out there working today and that is a pretty terrifying thought when you think about it.
This story reminded me a bit of the HBO series TRUE DETECTIVE, where there were horrendous crimes being committed all over the place, and it showed that trying to link crimes together across state lines can be very problematic.
MARTY: And virtually impossible. That’s a very interesting point. Because, like in this case, a rapist is going to be the responsibility of the local police to track him down. But Michael Lee Jones had a job that took him all over the country, city to city. He worked for this national caterer for big events. So he would slip in and out of town very quickly, without notice, and once he is gone, local police had no chance of catching him. The only way he could have been caught was because this detective crossed state lines and tracked him from Miami to New Orleans to Maryland and to Colorado Springs.
It shows that the detective’s tenacity really paid off and that a macro-view was needed beyond what local police would normally use in these types of crimes.
MARTY: It was well beyond the means of the police. It is not their fault. It is just a fact that they have their jurisdictions and if a rapist moves out of their jurisdiction, they are not going to catch him. It was not until the advent of DNA that we can now dig back through history to link crimes — and it is one of the things we mention towards the end of the show, that I think is one of the more important things of the show — is that there is about a half-million untested rape kits in police custody right now. If you take the smallest number of who might be serial rapists, like Michael Lee Jones, you are talking about tens of thousands of criminals we know that we could identify — if we processed those rape kits. It is something of a scandal that it hasn’t happened.
Do you think that in light of all the publicity around some of the more public and high-profiled rapes in the last year that the police will put a priority on getting those rape kits processed?
MARTY: Absolutely. I certainly believe that in my heart and I certainly hope so. The unfortunate thing about rape is that it is the only form of violent crime that you do not have a group of victims fighting for justice. Rape victims tend to not report it at all or, if they do report it, they have to face being re-victimized a second time to convict the guy who raped them. So they are not out there rattling on the police station doors, saying, “Get those rape kits processed.” As a result, police when they are doing their budget meetings every year, it is not the most pressing thing. People are making more noise about streetlights than they are about rape. So it gets ignored. But you are right, we are now coming into an age of consciousness about this — acute consciousness — a lot of celebrity consciousness of this, and I think that is kicking the ball into play. I think people are starting to say, “Hey, wait a minute. This is an enormous injustice. We know we could find criminals if we just do the chemistry here.” I think — and I hope — that will happen.
It is crazy that law enforcement has not prioritized getting the rape kits processed. It is a highly prosecutable crime. They have the evidence there. So why aren’t they taking the money and time to do it?
MARTY: And some of the rape kits that have not been processed are over 10 years old.
That is terrifying.
MARTY: I consider that a staggering statistic and a shameful one. So I hope “The Case of the Vanishing Blonde” shows how difficult it is to nail one of these guys. We have the chemistry and technology now to do it. Someone just needs to pony up the money and buckle down and track these guys down, because they are out there.
It is great that VANITY FAIR CONFIDENTIAL is bringing this issue to everyone’s attention. It is a very timely and these kinds of crimes do need to be prosecuted and investigated more thoroughly.
MARTY: Absolutely. Looking at it from the victim’s side, if you get beaten up or you get robbed or you get assaulted in any another way, you are going to be out there demanding your rights in court. But a rape victim is different. Her day in court is a miserable experience. The defense’s job is to make her look like a slut who asked it. So you have already been victimized and traumatized by the event, and then you have to say to yourself: “Why would I go through that again?” It takes a very strong woman to do that. Rape victims should have some support from the system, but just because no one is making noise, the system is not doing it for them. I’ve been a reporter for 30 years and I was shocked when I dug into the data. Given the nature of the crime, it is one of those crimes that doesn’t go away. We have watched — in the course of doing this story — the trauma of rape just echoes and reverberates through the rest of the victims’ lives. They can never get rid of it. It effects everything about their lives. And yet, it is not getting the rigorous prosecution that it really deserves. But, hopefully, we are moving now into a space where that is more possible.
I appreciate every TV show that puts focus on this issue. It encourages victims to step forward and it encourages putting pressure on the legislators and those responsible for allocating funds and law enforcement budgets to get rape kits processed. It is a crime that deserves that attention.
MARTY: When you watch our show, you will see our character, who we call Rachel — that is not her name — but she is one of the New Orleans rape victims. I think her testimony is going to do exactly what you said. It is really going to make women say, “My god, look what she did. I am going to have to do that too.”
For you, what is the most rewarding part of putting focus on these kinds of cases?
MARTY: I have been a reporter all of my adult life and when we get into a story that you start to see the blatant injustice, it really gnaws at you. I’ve got to tell you, this story bothered me more than anything else I have done in a long time. I won’t go into any of the details, but as shown in “The Case of the Vanishing Blonde,” there is another woman, Jennifer Roessler, who dies. Her story just breaks my heart. This was something that devastated her life. In the end, her death is directly attributable to it, even though the corner’s report said she died of natural causes. Trust me, she didn’t. So this was the sort of story that really got under my skin. On that level, I just hope we make some noise and get people talking about this injustice with the rape kits. We, as a people, have in our possession evidence of a vicious crime that we could prosecute, if we just did the chemistry. It’s sinful that we have not.
Finally, were there any particular challenges in bringing this story to light?
MARTY: Oh god, yes. Television is the world as operated by Murphy’s Law. There were a million challenges. The first challenge — just think about it — trying to get victims to talk about the horrible crime that they really wish would go away to sit back and talk about it, just getting to that step is a difficult process. This is the kind of thing that victims want to put behind them. So that was very hard. Another thing, the prosecutors in New Orleans worked very hard to get no one to cooperate with us because they have an active case coming up this year and we were perceived as a problem by them. It took a lot of talk to get past that problem. So, were there problems? My gosh, yes. But I will tell you, I feel better about this story than a lot of things I’ve done in the past few years — just in terms of the importance of what it’s really saying here.
To see how “The Case of the Vanishing Blonde” was ultimately cracked through the dogged perseverance of one man determined to see justice done, be sure to tune in for an all new episode of VANITY FAIR CONFIDENTIAL on Monday, February 16th at 9:00 p.m. on Investigation Discovery Channel. (VANITY FAIR CONFIDENTIAL is produced by True Entertainment.)