How a sudden cremation set off an international murder investigation
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A Pittsburgh dentist is in federal custody awaiting trial on charges of murdering his wife on a 2016 African safari vacation. Larry and Bianca Rudolph, skilled big game hunters, traveled to a favorite location – Kafue National Park in Zambia. No one would have imagined Bianca would never make it home, or that journey would end years later with allegations of coverups, infidelity, fraud and murder.
CBS News correspondent Debora Patta, on assignment for “48 Hours,” explores this complex investigation on 48 Hours: “Death on Safari” airing on CBS on Saturday, April 16 at 10PM/ET and streaming live on Paramount+.
Rudolph ran a multi-million-dollar dental business with five locations. Larry and Bianca were avid hunters who traveled all over the world.
According to police in Zambia, on the final day of their safari, October 11, Rudolph claimed Bianca was packing a gun in the bedroom of their cabin when he heard a shotgun blast from the bathroom. He said he found his wife bleeding, lying face up on the floor with a shotgun wound to the heart. Spencer Kakoma, a game scout on that safari, also heard the shot and says he ran to the cabin within 15 seconds.
Kakoma said he witnessed Bianca clearing the gun of live ammunition the night before. He says Rudolph first claimed Bianca died by suicide, shooting herself intentionally while he was in the bathroom. Later, Rudolph had a different version of events, no longer claiming it was a suicide, but rather saying Bianca accidentally shot herself while packing up the gun.
Things weren’t adding up for Kakoma. He says Rudolph was fully dressed when he rushed over to the cabin after hearing the gunshot. But local police say Rudolph told them he was wrapped in a towel.
Local authorities went to the scene and photographed the body, which was later moved to a funeral home to await cremation. An American Embassy official decided to travel to the funeral home to investigate. Unbeknownst to Rudolph, the official, a former Marine with decades of weapons experience, inspected Bianca’s body, measuring the shotgun wound and taking photos.
Zambian authorities concluded that the shooting was accidental. That’s where the story may have ended if it wasn’t for a friend of Bianca. According to an FBI criminal complaint, when the friend learned Bianca was cremated, it raised suspicions because she believed “cremation to have been against Bianca’s wishes because Bianca was a strict Catholic.”
The FBI complaint says Bianca’s friend told an FBI agent Rudolph had been having an extra marital affair and “had been verbally abusive in the past and that the two had fights about money.”
But in a document filed by Rudolph’s attorneys, they claim Bianca’s will “expressly directed cremation.” They also say Bianca knew about her husband’s affair, indicating it wouldn’t have been a motive for murder.
The friend also told the FBI agent, “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.”
“She opened up a Pandora’s box as to why Lawrence Rudolph would want to kill his wife,” says Mary Fulginiti, a former federal prosecutor and CBS News consultant.
Within a month of returning to the United States, the FBI says Rudolph started filing claims on his wife’s life insurance policies, worth almost $5 million.
Retired FBI Supervisory Special Agent James Gagliano says that friend’s call was a catalyst, sparking an FBI investigation in the U.S. and Zambia.
However, there are challenges when it comes to a federal murder investigation in a foreign country, says Gagliano.
“Investigations overseas don’t always work at the same tempo– or as expeditiously as we Americans would like them to. We want an answer yesterday. … It can be frustrating at times. … Memories get rusty and cloudy. Documents get lost or destroyed. With every day that passes it gets more and more difficult to close a loop here, get the evidence you need, and make a conviction,” Gagliano said.
Rudolph was arrested in December 2021, more than five years after Bianca’s death, charged with foreign murder and mail fraud.
The defense faces a complicated international murder case, but Fulginiti points out it is largely circumstantial.
“There isn’t any direct evidence linking Lawrence Rudolph to the crime. We don’t have any physical evidence really besides the shotgun– and we don’t have any fingerprints, there’s no eyewitness that saw him do it,” Fulginiti said. “So this is a challenging case, most importantly because the one main piece of evidence is the body, and that is gone.”
Larry Rudolph’s attorneys, who declined to talk to “48 Hours” at this time, provided the following statement:
“Dr. Rudolph is innocent. The Zambian authorities who were there and investigated said so. The insurance companies who paid the claim after they investigated said so. Strangely, five years later, the feds brought charges without any real evidence — no eye-witnesses, no forensics, no anything — except for some speculation sprinkled into a chasm of conjecture. “
The case is scheduled for trial in July.