Bianca Rudolph, a big game hunter, went to Africa to kill a leopard. She came home in an urn, dead from an accidental discharge from her shotgun.
At least that’s what her husband, Dr Lawrence Rudolf, said happened. Federal investigators disagree.
Dr Rudolph is a 67-year-old dentist. He founded Three Rivers Dental Group, which operates in Pittsburgh. He has also been charged with murdering his wife.
The dentist was placed in custody on 4 January and charged with murder and fraud stemming from his wife’s 2016 death.
Federal investigators claim that Dr Rudolph intended to “defraud life insurance companies” by presenting his wife’s death as an accident and collecting the payout.
Attorneys representing Dr Rudolph told The Daily Beast the charges were “outrageous,” and that he “loved his wife of 34 years and did not kill her.”
Following the couple’s deadly trip to Zambia in 2016, Dr Rudolph claimed nearly $5m in insurance benefits. Federal investigators said he managed to secure the multi-million dollar payout by making claims through seven life insurance companies.
In the fall of 2016, the Rudolphs traveled to Zambia to hunt big game. The couple were avid hunters, with memberships in major hunting organisations and several trips to Africa under their belts.
On 11 October, at 5.30 am, Ms Rudolph was shot in the chest. The shot originated from her personal hunting shotgun.
Dr Rudolph told the Zambian police that he had been in the bathroom of their cabin when he heard a gunshot from the couple’s bedroom. He said he went to investigate the noise and found Ms Rudolph lying on the ground, bleeding from her chest.
He told police he believed that the gun was still loaded from the previous day’s hunt, and that it had gone off while she was trying to pack it back into its case.
According to court documents, one of the hunting guides who was staying in the area said he “recalled seeing the shotgun and an expended shotshell on the ground. The shotgun was inside a partially zipped gun case.”
After speaking with local authorities, around 4.30pm, Dr Rudolph called the US Embassy in Zambia to discuss funeral options for his wife. During that call, he told US officials he wanted her body cremated.
The embassy’s consular chief, who spoke with Dr Rudolph, alerted the FBI, saying he “had a bad feeling about the situation, which he thought was moving too quickly.”
The chief, along with two embassy officials, traveled to a local funeral home where Ms Rudolph’s body was being kept to take photos of her in order to preserve evidence. This reportedly incensed Dr Rudolph, who was also at the funeral home at the time.
During the funeral home visit, Dr Rudolph allegedly told the embassy officials he wanted to wait to notify the family members about Ms Rudolph’s death, saying his children were from another marriage. It was during that conversation that the dentist suggested his wife may have committed suicide.
The visit left the embassy officials feeling even more uneasy. The consular chief is a 20-year US Marine veteran, and told investigators that the wound was “straight on the heart,” not angled as one would expect from a self-inflicted shot from a longarm. Further, he noted that the wound did not appear to be caused by a “tight group of pellets.” When a shotgun fires buckshot, the pellets exit the firearm in a tight bunch before spreading out as they travel toward a target.
The chief also noted there were no gas burns on the body, which are typical for gunshot wounds at point-blank or near point-blank ranges. He estimated that Ms Rudolph had been shot from between 6.5 and 8 feet away.
Questions arise about Dr Rudolph’s story
After Ms Rudolph’s death, a “friend” contacted the FBI in Pretoria, South Africa, and told them they should investigate the death further as she suspected “foul play.”
She claimed that Mr Rudolph had been “involved in prior extramarital affairs and had been having an affair at the time of Bianca’s death.” The woman claimed that Dr Rudolph was allegedly “verbally abusive” and that the pair had fought over money.
The woman also told the FBI that Mr Rudolph’s children did not learn of their step-mother’s death until a week after she had been killed, and that other friends close to Ms Rudolph did not find out until the day of her funeral. She also claimed Ms Rudolph was a “strict Catholic” and would not have wanted to be cremated.
“Larry is never going to divorce her because he doesn’t want to lose his money, and she’s never going to divorce him because of her Catholicism,” the friend told investigators. Other friends corroborated the stories of infidelity to investigators.
Dr Rudolph’s legal team has pushed back against the claims that their client would have committed murder with a monetary motivation. The point to his dentistry business, which is reportedly valued at close to $8m, as proof he would have no financial motive to kill, noting that he had signed a prenuptial agreement that would prevent him from substantial losses in the event of a divorce.
The friend claimed that Dr Rudolph’s girlfriend moved in with him a year after his wife’s death. Investigators also found financial records suggesting that Dr Rudolph took numerous trips with his girlfriend to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, including a trip that took place a month after Ms Rudolph’s death.
The dentist’s theory that his wife died by suicide were also called into question after a medical examiner in Colorado examined the photos of Ms Rudolph’s wound. The medical expert concluded that it “would be physically impossible to accidentally fire this shotgun in its carrying case and produce the entrance defect noted on the body of Ms Rudolph,” according to an affidavit.
“The tip of the carrying case was most likely at least two feet from Ms. Randolph when the weapon was discharged regardless if it was on cylinder or full choke settings,” the medical examiner said in the affidavit. “Further, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Ms. Rudolph to reach the trigger of this weapon even if it was placed in the case with the muzzle pressed against her chest.”
The Daily Beast obtained cellphone transcripts showing a number of large payments made to the hunting guide who corroborated Dr Rudolph’s story, adding to the suspicion surrounding the incident.
According to the publication’s analysis, Dr Rudolph paid the hunting guide $30,000 in January 2017, just three months after the woman died. Two months later Dr Rudolph paid the guide another $23,000.
What comes next
Dr Rudolph is being held in a state facility in Colorado, where he is awaiting his trial to begin.
His legal team is arguing for his temporary release, claiming his incarceration puts him at risk of contracting Covid-19, and objecting to his detention in Colorado, which is not his home state.
The attorneys said that Colorado is a “jurisdiction foreign to him – where he lacks the support of any friends or family who could visit him and assist him in organising his affairs to mount his defence.” They went on to accuse prosecutors of “deliberately” isolating the dentist in order to “gain an unfair advantage.”
“Permitting such naked gamesmanship in a case making such serious allegations risks making the ultimate trial a hollow proceeding and a mockery of justice and of the judicial system itself,” the attorney’s bail request said.
Prosecutors pushed back on the request on Monday, noting that Dr Rudolph’s legal team was based in Miami, not Phoenix, where he hoped to be transferred. They argued that the jurisdiction where he is being held would make no difference for his defense as he would not be in Miami with his legal team.
“As to the health issues, the defendant has not offered his vaccination status,” prosecutors wrote in a motion responding to the bail request. “If he is vaccinated, this court and others have concluded that this is a substantial factor in assessing COVID risks.”