PINELLAS PARK — She was a 21-year-old housekeeper at the Budget Inn on U.S. 19. He was the 49-year-old manager who lived at the motel with his family.
In January, Samantha Brownlee was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder, accused of running over Bhupendrakumar Patel with his own van.
Brownlee would likely have faced a life sentence if charged and convicted of first-degree murder, but the case recently took a different turn. In an arrangement with prosecutors, Brownlee pleaded guilty to lesser charges last week and received a five-year-prison sentence.
Defense attorney Douglas Prior said the outcome was appropriate considering "the totality of the circumstances."
Part of the story is that Brownlee was a victim herself, Prior maintained. He said there was evidence to indicate Patel sexually assaulted Brownlee previously.
But his daughter Braina Patel strongly disagrees and said in an interview the scenario painted by the defense was not possible.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said there was evidence Patel had previously propositioned Brownlee, but he was not aware of any evidence that he had assaulted her.
Prior said Patel asked Brownlee in January to go out with him for a drink. She reluctantly agreed, he said.
They wound up at a strip club a bit north of the motel on U.S. 19. Prior said one of the dancers was interviewed later and said she had spoken to Brownlee. She said Brownlee appeared very uncomfortable and said she was at the club against her will. The dancer even offered to give her a ride home later, Prior said.
But Patel and Brownlee left the strip club together in Patel's van. Patel then took her to some commercial buildings off 49th Street, where he tried to force himself on her, Prior said.
"She's totally freaked out, hysterical, bleeding," Prior said. He said she got out of the van and Patel chased her. Somehow she got back in the van, and ended up driving into Patel.
Prior said this was accidental — "a consequence of her trying to get the hell out of there."
Bartlett said there was evidence Patel was trying to force himself on Brownlee, which bolstered her claim of self-defense. He said investigators looked into the possibility that Brownlee had tried to set up Patel for a robbery — which would have led to more severe charges — "but there was no way that could be established."
Brownlee pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving death, tampering with evidence and arson.
The latter two charges came about because after Brownlee drove into Patel, police say, she and her 16-year-old boyfriend set the van on fire to destroy it. Arson and tampering charges are pending against the boyfriend, Jonathan Pinyard, now 17.
Reached by telephone, Patel's daughter said the death has devastated the family, and relatives strongly deny claims of assault or harassment.
Braina Patel, 24, said her father worked full days at the motel and returned to his unit in the motel immediately after each shift. There, he and his wife ate dinner and watched movies. He was either with her or at work, she said. So the idea that he would go out with another woman, or become familiar with a strip club, is "not even possible."
Also, she said it's hard to believe a young woman who had previously been assaulted would agree to go on a date with her attacker. She called it "a big lie."
She said her father, who was from the state of Gujarat in India, supported nine family members and was well-loved in his home country, where she said he was a politician, farmer and social worker. On the day news spread of his death, she said literally thousands congregated around his home in India.
"People loved and admired him so much," she said.