Paul Bush’s death still shrouded in mystery, five years after Budapest plunge

By Kevin Deutsch

The thing that first drew me to Paul Bush’s story was the ornate, winding staircase over which he fell, plunging to his death on the marble floor below.

It dominates the lobby of a stately 19th century building in Budapest, not far from the city’s famed party district. Designed in the baroque style, the property is one of many stunning works of architecture in the neighborhood where Bush spent his final hours.

The 36-year-old traveled here for a stag party, arriving with a group of friends on August 29, 2014. They’d come to celebrate the pending nuptials of their close friend, British racing journalist Steve Palmer, who was also on the trip.

A stag party is the equivalent of an American bachelor party, and Budapest, which some call the Bangkok of Europe because of its flourishing sex trade, is among the world’s most popular destinations for such outings.

By all accounts, the party’s early hour were a success. After going on a guided, six-pub bar crawl, Bush and his friends toured Budapest’s notoriously wild strip clubs, where dances come cheap and young female prostitutes can be procured at prices far lower than most other large cities.

Bush—a satellite TV installer who had a loving fiancée and family back in Britain—had personally organized the trip to Budapest, his favorite city.

As the evening progressed, his friends had lauded him for his choice of locales. The stag outing was everything they’d hoped for, and Bush—known as “Bushy” to his pals—was the one who’d made it a reality.

The last time any of Paul’s friends saw him, he was on the dance floor of a party district club around 1 a.m., living it up with the rest of the crowd. That’s the point at which he became separated from his stag group.

Less than an hour later, at 1:49 a.m., closed circuit cameras recorded him walking into the upscale building on
Andrássy Avenue, a short walk from the party district. He was accompanied by an attractive woman wearing a white dress; the same woman who cameras had captured entering the building with a different man earlier that night.

She was, authorities believe, a prostitute. Condoms were recovered from the scene near where Bush plunged to his death, although whether he had any sexual contact with the woman remains a mystery. As does most everything that happened to Bush after he walked through the building’s front door.

The property is a four-story walk up, situated next to a high-end hair salon and across from Ralph Lauren and Rolex shops. It’s tenants are largely commercial, with offices rented out to various businesses, including at least one physician.

I toured the building last year in an effort to understand what happened to Bush that early August morning, and soon found the account offered by Budapest police did not add up.

They’d ruled Bush’s death an accident, the result of a fall from the winding staircase that spans four stories.

But they’d offered no explanation for their conclusion, nor any evidence to support it.

They said Bush had been robbed of his wallet and cell phone after his death. But, again, they had offered no explanation or evidence for this conclusion.

The case was open and shut; an accidental death, as far as the local police were concerned.

Before delving into the finer points of the incident, it must be noted that Hungary has descended into a kind of soft fascism in recent years, its government displaying increasing authoritarian tendencies under the rule of right-wing strongman Victor Orbán.

Press freedoms may be constitutionally protected in Hungary, but that means little these days due to the fact that Orban’s allies control the countries major media outlets. They help stifle dissenting voices, while puppet parties are placed on the ballot to give the illusion of free elections.

All of which is to say, Budapest police do not have the same limits on their powers, or oversight, as police forces in America, Britain, or France, among other free democracies.

In Bush’s case, Budapest police have never publicly stated who they think robbed him. Nor have they said whether they’ve interviewed any suspects in connection with his robbery or death.

That’s problematic, because just minutes after Bush and the unidentified woman in white entered the building at 1:49 a.m., a security camera captured her exiting the building—this time accompanied by another unidentified woman, as well as an unidentified man.

About six hours later, Bush was found dead on the lobby floor, his pants around his ankles, his shoes and socks found separately from his body. An autopsy showed he’d suffered broken vertebrae in his neck and back, broken bones in his skull, and fractured ribs and internal bleeding.

British authorities conducted an inquest into his death and—after highlighting the gaps in the Budapest police force’s case—declined to rule it an accident. Instead, the manner of Bush’s death was deemed “open.”

British officials say the possibility Bush was murdered cannot be ruled out. And the implication from testimony at their inquest was that Budapest police had not properly investigated Bush’s death.

Among other problems, the Hungarians never told the Brits whether they’d identified, much less interviewed, the three people seen leaving the building as Bush lay dead or dying inside.

And when Bush’s grieving fiancé went to Budapest for answers, the authorities blew her off.

So, what really happened to Paul Bush? Budapest authorities say he struck a concierge stand in the building’s lobby when he fell over the stair railing, which helps explain the variety and locations of his numerous injuries.

But when I stood in the building’s stairwell, it seemed unlikely to me Bush would have toppled over any portion of that railing of his own accord.

Assuming he was intoxicated with his pants down, It’s of course possible he stumbled over.

But when I simulated such a movement from the fourth story, it seemed far likelier a person would have to have been pushed in order to topple over the railing in such a manner.

A far likelier scenario is that Bush was attacked while his pants were around his ankles, either by the prostitute in white or the man and woman she was seen leaving with. Perhaps all three were involved in his robbery and death.

Because Budapest police have never explained how they came to the conclusions they did, we simply do not know what culpability these three unidentified people have, if any.

At worst, they participated in the robbery-murder of an innocent man. At best, they left the scene of a horrifying accident without bothering to notify authorities.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that Bush’s death was not an anomaly. According to the Guardian newspaper, at least 30 British men have died in the past decade while on stag outings. Roughly a third of these deaths happened in 2017, suggesting these blowout parties are growing more dangerous.

If Bush’s family is ever going to get the answers they deserve, Budapest authorities must re-open their investigation, identify, and properly interview the three people who left his broken body in the lobby.

Then, they should arrest anyone who committed a crime in connection with Bush’s robbery and death.

Paul was a Brit and a tourist, but if he’d been the son of some prominent Orbán ally, it seems likely the police would still be banging on doors to get answers, utilizing every ounce of their authority in an increasingly authoritarian state.

Bush deserves a thorough, credible investigation. And after five years without answers, his family deserves more than a few.

Copyright 2019 by Kevin Deutsch. All Rights Reserved

Kevin Deutsch is an award-winning true crime writer, host of the true crime podcast “A Dark Turn,” and author of two books: “The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips,” and “Pill City: How Two Honor Roll Students Foiled the Feds and Built a Drug Empire.” He has worked on staff at various newspapers including the New York Daily News, Newsday, The Miami Herald, and The Palm Beach Post. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Post, The Orlando Sentinel, The Forward, The Independent, and other publications. A member of PEN America and the Authors Guild, Deutsch lives in the Bronx, New York, where he works as a staff writer for the journalism nonprofit Bronx

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