US dentist on trial for wife’s 2016 safari death in Zambia

DENVER (AP) — A shotgun blast that shattered the early-morning tranquility of a remote southern Africa national park nearly six years ago, killing a U.S. woman, resonates again in a Denver courtroom this week as the founder of a dental franchise goes on trial for allegedly killing his wife and collecting nearly $5 million in insurance proceeds.

Federal prosecutors allege Lawrence “Larry” Rudolph, 67, a big game hunter and former head of an international safari club, killed his wife at the end of a 2016 hunting trip in Zambia. He later cashed in life and accidental death insurance policies in the United States.

Rudolph is charged with murder and mail fraud in what prosecutors describe as a premeditated crime.

He has maintained his innocence. Rudolph told Zambian police his wife of 34 years, Bianca, died while he was in the bathroom, suggesting she shot herself while trying to pack a shotgun the couple took on the trip.

Prosecutors counter that evidence shows that was impossible because her wounds came from a shot fired from 2-3.5 feet away. She would not have been able to reach the trigger from that far away while zipping the gun case, they allege in court documents.

Prosecutors also accuse Rudolph’s alleged mistress and a former manager of his Pittsburgh-area business, Lori Milliron, of lying to a federal grand jury about the case and her relationship with Rudolph, who was arrested in December. She’s charged with perjury and being an accessory after the fact.

Their trial begins with jury selection Monday in U.S. District Court in Denver. The wide-ranging case - involving the 2016 death of a U.S. citizen, the purchase of a residence in Arizona, and Rudolph’s surprise arrest in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico - is being tried in Colorado because several insurers tied to the payout were based here.

Rudolph and Milliron’s attorneys, David Markus and Margot Moss, counter that the U.S. case is little more than a fragile web of circumstantial evidence compiled by overzealous FBI agents long after Zambian authorities determined that Bianca’s death was accidental. She died of a shotgun wound to the heart inside the small wooden cabin the couple shared during the safari.

They had been married 34 years.

“No physical evidence supports the government’s murder theory,” Rudolph’s lawyers declared in a court document.

Rudolph had built a small fortune as a dentist and founder of a dentistry franchise in the Pittsburgh area, and he was a familiar fixture on local TV, advertising his services. He met Bianca at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied dentistry, and they married in 1982.

The couple took frequent trips abroad; both were big-game hunting enthusiasts, and in 2016 Bianca wanted to bag a leopard. They traveled to southern Zambia’s Kafue National Park so she could do so.

According to court documents, Bianca’s wishes went unfulfilled, and the Rudolphs were up early in their cabin about 5 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2016, packing for the trip home when Larry Rudolph told Zambian police that he was in the bathroom when he heard the blast and his wife scream. He said he found her bleeding on the floor, a fatal wound to her heart, with a 12-gauge shotgun lying nearby. It was one of two guns that couple took on the trip, according to court documents.

Local authorities determined her death was accidental and that the gun may have fired as Bianca was packing it into a bag. Her distraught husband arranged for her cremation in Zambia before returning to the U.S., documents state.

According to an arrest affidavit, a friend of Bianca’s called an FBI legal attache in South Africa several weeks later, suspicious about the death and saying that Larry Rudolph had been having an affair. The friend also had doubts about the cremation, insisting Bianca was a Catholic opposed to the practice.

That call ultimately triggered the lengthy FBI investigation. According to one document, a U.S. consular officer in Zambia raised eyebrows at what he perceived to be Larry Rudolph’s insistence that his wife be quickly cremated before he returned home.

The defense contends the couple had an agreement calling for cremation in the event of either’s death.

In 2017, Rudolph received life and accidental death insurance payments totaling nearly $4.9 million from several insurers. Documents suggest -- and the defense insists - the insurers conducted their own investigations before issuing payment. Rudolph’s attorneys insist their client had no ulterior motive for collecting, given the millions his dental franchise was worth.

Rudolph’s attorneys state that Rudolph was aware of and cooperated with the FBI investigation long before he was arrested in Cabo San Lucas, where he owned a home, and extradited — both unnecessarily, his lawyers say — to the U.S.

The federal murder charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison or death. Mail fraud carries a maximum 20 years. Fines and other conditions could be imposed as well.