Nearly 45 years after a 19-year-old newlywed was found dead in what appeared to be a car wreck, her then-husband is standing trial for her murder.
Former lawyer Donnie Rudd, 76, bashed in his wife’s head in 1973 and then staged a crash to make it look like she was thrown from a car, prosecutors say.
Rudd is also a suspect in the 1991 shooting death of one of his clients, who was allegedly considering filing an official complaint against him, according to the Washington Post. Pressure from family members in that case, led cops to revisit the details of the 1973 crash scene.
Rudd has denied all of the charges, and his lawyer Timothy Grace told the Chicago Daily Herald he looks forward to “finally getting this case to trial.”
Prosecutors say Rudd married Noreen Kumeta, a 19-year-old colleague at Quaker Oats, so he could kill her and get more than $100,000 in insurance money. She died just 27 days after they were married.
The circumstances surrounding the marriage are unusual. Up until Rudd married Kumeta, he had been living with another woman Dianne Marks, according to the Houston Chronicle. Both he and Marks had left previous marriages to be with each other.
In August 1973, he abruptly told Marks he planned to marry Kumeta—the very next day, according to the Chronicle. But within a week of Kumeta’s death, Rudd and Marks reunited. He was at her home on the day of Kumeta’s funeral, a prosecutor said in court this week.
Rudd’s attorney disputed the idea he was living some sort of double life. “They fell in love. It was an impulsive act,” he said of the marriage to Kumeta.
On the night of the crash, rookie cop Christopher Bish found Rudd cradling Kumeta’s body in a “desolate, unlit” field in Barrington Hills, a suburb of Chicago, Bish told a court Tuesday. Rudd had swerved to avoid an oncoming car, he told Bish, and Kumeta was ejected from the car when her door swung open.
Bish tried CPR on Kumeta to no avail. He told prosecutors the back of her head felt “mushy” to the touch, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Authorities exhumed Kumeta’s body as part of the investigation. The medical examiner who autopsied the body, Dr. Hilary McElligott, said she died from multiple blows to head, rather than a car crash. However, she also acknowledged, under cross-examination Wednesday, she found no signs of defensive wounds or foreign materials inside Kumeta’s skull, according to the Tribune.
Kumeta was buried in her wedding dress.
Prosecutors say Rudd was under financial pressure and knew he would stand to collect $120,000 upon Kumeta’s death. Rudd’s attorney said there is no evidence he even knew of the insurance policies, according to the Tribune.
Rudd, who has been married five times, went on to marry his previous girlfriend Marks the following year in 1974. He also became something of a star in the local legal community, as a specialist in condominium law. He helped rewrite Illinois’ condo laws and even hosted his legal affairs show on local TV, according the Chronicle. His vanity plates read “MR CONDO.”
Despite his apparent career success, allegations of fraud began to surface. Multiple clients claimed he promised to send them large settlements that never materialized, according to the Chronicle.
In April 1991, an interior designer named Lauretta Tabak-Bodtke threatened to file exactly such a complaint against Rudd, the Chronicle reports. The next evening her husband found her in their kitchen in a pool of blood.
Neighbors said they had seen a car with his splashy MR CONDO license plate pull up to Tabak-Bodtke’s house earlier in the day. They said they heard loud noises coming from inside at around 3:20 p.m. and saw Rudd leave just after, according the Chronicle.
He is still a suspect in that murder, according to the Washington Post, but charges were never filed against him. Even still, Tabak-Bodtke’s daughter Stephanie Tabak doggedly pursued Rudd, contacting him most years on the anniversary of her mother’s death.
"You killed her, but part of her is still here, and that's me," she told him each time, according the Chronicle. "I'm not going to give up."
The daughter also continued to follow up with cops, sending them tips and tidbits of what she believed to be evidence over the years. They reopened her mother’s case in 2013 and interviewed Rudd. He gave vague and conflicting answers about the 1973 car crash, which led investigators to reopen that case, according to the Chronicle.
Rudd put up $400,000 in bail money and has been free in the lead up to his trial, according to the Tribune.
"We've always wondered how you can get away with so many things," Rudd's first wife, Louann Hart, told the Chronicle. "The things he has done to other people … it is beyond my capability of understanding."
[Photo: Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office]