ST. PETERSBURG — The case seemed like a sure thing.
Sarasota police pull over a blue car similar to one used in a brutal rape that took place about an hour earlier. Inside, they find a man with his penis exposed, the victim's blood on his crotch and shirt and a car jack used to beat her on the head.
The victim identifies the man as her attacker, and police also find his wallet at the crime scene.
But Michael Lee Montgomery wriggled free from that 1996 arrest.
Prosecutors dropped most of the charges, including sexual assault and kidnapping. He didn't spend a day in state prison and wasn't labeled a sex offender.
On Thursday, Montgomery, now 48, was arrested again. St. Petersburg police say he is a serial rapist who brutally beat and raped at least four women. They say he targeted vulnerable women, including one who was mentally retarded and another who was a prostitute. Police suspect they will find more victims.
So what happened 12 years ago that allowed Montgomery to avoid prison?
The prosecutor, Peter Lombardo, who dropped the charges said it was a combination of two factors: the victim made inconsistent statements about what happened and the defense attorney planned to question whether police had illegally stopped Montgomery's car.
Sarasota police, however, say the traffic stop was legitimate, and that the inconsistent statements made by the victim were the reason for the case being dropped.
"I was extremely disappointed" in the dropped charges, Lombardo said. "He deserved a lot more time than he got."
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Captain Bill Spitler still remembers the night in August 1996 that he pulled over Montgomery in Sarasota.
Montgomery had picked up a 45-year-old woman who was walking near Centennial Park, threatened to kill her and then raped her, police said. He beat her repeatedly with a car jack handle.
But the woman escaped from the car, according to what police told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune at the time. She got help from a passing driver, who took her to a police officer nearby.
In an interview Friday, Spitler remembered her saying that her attacker had driven a blue Firebird.
Spitler, who joined the department in 1980, said he has years of experience investigating sex crimes and knows that rapists sometimes come back to the scene of the attack.
After the woman told him about the Firebird, he saw a blue Celica driving suspiciously slowly on U. S. 41, then suddenly stopping and making a U-turn. At that moment, Spitler said: "There he is."
Police pulled over the Celica and found Montgomery inside, covered with blood. Spitler said a 1996 Celica looked like a Firebird. He maintains his stop was legal.
"Everything I did that day was well within the law of the state of Florida and of the United States," Spitler said.
Spitler said he didn't know until Friday that Montgomery had been let go after the 1996 arrest.
Lombardo, the former Sarasota assistant state attorney, said the victim in the case had numerous credibility issues. She had personal problems, including substance abuse. And she gave conflicting information about the attack, sometimes contradicting herself and forgetting facts.
"I would say there were major problems with the victim's … potential testimony," Lombardo said Friday.
But Lombardo also said that the defense attorney in the case, Michael Burns, told him that he felt the police stop of Montgomery was illegal. Montgomery's car was not a Firebird, and he had made a legal U-turn.
Burns could not be reached for comment.
If the stop was determined to be illegal, then none of the evidence in the car, as well as the victim's identification of Montgomery, would be allowed in court, Lombardo said.
Lombardo said he decided to drop the case largely because of the victim's testimony, but the stop was also a factor.
After reviewing records related to the case and speaking to officers involved Friday, Capt. Paul Sutton of the Sarasota police said he believed the conflicting statements given by the victim were the reason for the dismissed charges.
Montgomery pleaded no contest to just one charge: aggravated assault. An electronic court docket says he received credit for time served in jail. He did not receive any state prison time.
The full court record and police reports were not available Friday.
Lombardo and Spitler still believe Montgomery beat and raped the woman that night.
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Little is known about Montgomery besides his extensive criminal record. He has been arrested more than a dozen times since 1980, and he spent five months in prison in the mid 1980s, according to the Department of Corrections.
An arrest affidavit says Montgomery lived at 2412 53rd St. S in Gulfport and worked as a mechanic. St. Petersburg police Detective Pamela Marland said they recently learned the tag of his Chrysler New Yorker.
Police say they weren't able to connect the rapes until recently because the victims were sometimes uncooperative. They also had trouble narrowing in on who the rapist was or where he lived because he picked up women in different parts of town and returned them to the streets after severely beating them.
"It appears he has targeted women who are not good witnesses," said Bill Proffitt, a spokesman for St. Petersburg police. "That makes it difficult for police to pull together all the information they need to put together this case."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.