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He Claimed He Was An Inventor And A War Hero. Then He Staged His Wife's Death
He was sentenced to at least 75 years in prison for his staging his wife's 1973 murder to look like a car accident. But family members say that is not the half of it.
Donnie Rudd—who prosecutors have convicted of one murder, cops suspect of another, and family members believe committed yet a third—was good at making promises.
Take for instance the website of “Dr. Donnie,” where Rudd advertised novel medical inventions in the latter part of his life during his third professional career as lead scientist for a company called Regenetech. Rudd claimed his inventions were capable of “replenishing cells damaged by cancer,” “regenerating human tissue,” “treating diabetes,” and “preventing HIV transmission”—just to name a few.
He also claimed to be a war hero who’d won the Medal of Honor and owned a big oil company.
At several turns, like when he lost his law license or became the prime suspect in a 1991 murder, it seemed the fantastic reality Rudd conjured up might finally collapse. But like the best con men, Rudd could always make someone else believe, and rather than sink into obscurity, he tended to find his way back, again and again, to the admiration of his peers.
“He always wanted more,” Rudd’s stepdaughter Cindy Mulligan told Oxygen.com. “People were always attracted to that arrogance and self-confidence. He was very smart; he just didn’t use it in a productive way.”
But his fantasy world finally started to crumble when he was convicted of first-degree murder in July, and on Thursday came the final blow: A judge sentenced Rudd, now 76 years old, to 75 to 150 years in prison for beating his wife to death in 1973 then making it look like a car accident so he could get $120,000 in insurance money, according to the Chicago Tribune.
In 1971, Rudd seemed to be living the conventional American dream. He was a successful lawyer and a school board member with a wife, four kids, and a house in the suburbs of Chicago.
But then he started having an affair with the school board president Dianne Marks (at the time, she was still going by her married name, Dianne Hart). The couple decided they would leave their spouses to be together, but the decision caused a terrible psychic split for Marks, a churchgoing Baptist.
In her mind, Marks chose Rudd, with his charm and larger-than-life persona, over the possibility of getting into Heaven.
“I made some agreement with myself that if I could have Donnie I would spend eternity burning in hell,” she wrote in her journal, according to Mulligan, her daughter.
“She struggled with that [agreement] everyday towards the end of her life; she wondered if God would hold her to it,” Hart said.
The affair also led to an unexpected wife swap. The Hart and Rudd families, both with four children, had been close friends before the split. When Rudd announced he was having an affair with Marks, both couples finalized their divorces in August 1972, according to the Houston Chronicle. While Rudd and Marks didn’t immediately get hitched, Louann Rudd ended up marrying John Hart the following September. The four children from each side stayed with their mothers.
But before a year was out, in August 1973, Rudd would leave Marks and marry a significantly younger colleague, 19-year-old Noreen Kumeta. Just 27 days into their marriage in 1973, Noreen Rudd was killed in what was first explained as a freak car accident on a Barrington Hills Road.
Cops found the distraught Rudd clutching his wife’s body inside their 1972 Pinto Wagon next to an unlit road. Then within a week, he was living with Marks again and no one suspected a murder had taken place.
Rudd started getting eccentric. He and Marks bought a second house, next to their own, for her kids to live in. He didn’t like them being around his odd assortment of possessions; Rudd collected cobbled-together taxidermy, objects like a mounted mouse with wings. He also collected guns, like a novelty long-barrel pistol designed to look like a cane.
He wore cowboy boots and played up his home state of Texas while practicing law in Chicago.
Rudd told his new step kids fanciful stories about his heroism in Vietnam or work he’d done for the CIA. There is no record of either, according to Mulligan, who wrote about Rudd with her sister in a book called Living With The Devil.
“He is a sociopath, to be sure,” Rudd’s daughter Terisa Davis told Oxygen.com. Back in their mother’s house, away from Rudd, the death of his second wife in the car accident was always spoken about in hushed tones. The kids knew there something not right about it.
Despite Rudd’s eccentricities, his law practice started gaining prominence. Rudd specialized in condominium law during a building boom in Chicago, according to "Keith Morrison Investigates," the NBC correspondent’s show which profiled him in March. He hosted a legal affairs show on cable TV, according to the Houston Chronicle, and drove a car with a vanity plate that read “MR CONDO.”
But then Rudd’s penchant for making bold promises started losing him money. He would tell clients he’d won them settlements, when he actually hadn’t. When they came looking for payment, he would sometimes open his personal checkbook and make one out.
He wanted people to see him as “the big attorney that can win anything,” Mulligan told "Keith Morrison Investigates."
When clients expected a full payment, Rudd often told them he was sick and in the hospital—an excuse family members say he trotted out often if he thought it might win him any sympathy or buy him time.
In 1991, meanwhile, Rudd was suspected of murdering his client Lauretta Tabak-Bodtke, because she planned to file an official complaint against him for never paying out on a settlement. At the time, Rudd was still with his third wife Dianne Marks.
“I just remember my mom sitting down at the table and talking about how we were going to protect him,” Mulligan told Oxygen.com. She wonders now what her mother knew or what truth Rudd might have convinced her to believe. Her mother was in love with Rudd, and badly wanted to be loved by him in return, Mulligan said.
With the allegations of fraud and murder bearing down, it seemed even Rudd might not be able wriggle free. Then, despite the obvious motive and a witness who saw Rudd’s car at Tabak-Bodtke’s house around the time of the murder, prosecutors decided not to file charges in the murder case.
Meanwhile, Rudd was voluntarily disbarred from the Illinois State Bar Association over allegations of misconduct, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Rudd and Marks then moved to his home state of Texas. She thought things might cool off and Rudd could get a new start, according to Mulligan.
Marks convinced a court to grant her guardianship over Rudd, 50 at the time, saying he suffered from "unipolar manic-depressive syndrome," according to the Chronicle. The petition said Rudd’s illness caused him to enter into contracts that lost him money.
Then in May 1995, Marks received news that burst her hope for a fresh start. Breast cancer, which doctors had first diagnosed several years earlier, had aggressively returned. And Rudd was not acting like the loving husband she hoped for.
An old homemade video, obtained by "Keith Morrison Investigates," shows Marks behind a desk, talking on the phone. "Did I tell you we found out he's got another girlfriend?” she says into the receiver. “Good ol’ Donnie. He couldn’t even let me get cremated.”
Mulligan said a jewelry store receipt tipped them off to Donnie’s infidelity, which she said had been a recurrent theme for most of her mother’s marriage to Rudd.
The cancer worsened and Marks’ daughters convinced her she shouldn’t be in the house with Rudd. As they gathered boxes to move her back to Chicago, Mulligan said Rudd acted indifferent, treating their presence as an annoyance.
“We pulled out of the driveway and she didn’t have her dog, she didn’t have Donnie; she was never going to see anything that was familiar to her again,” she said.
Rudd made a last minute rush towards the car. All he wanted, it turned out, was the garage door opener.
Marks had traded on her soul to be with a man who already had a new girlfriend when she died in June of 1996, according to Mulligan.
“It wasn’t fair,” she said. “My mom died alone.”
Next, Rudd married Mary Bret, a psychiatry medical resident, according to the Chronicle. But the relationship didn’t last long and she looked to have it annulled after she found out that the Medal of Honor sitting on their mantel was a fake—one of the many false pieces in Rudd’s foundation of lies.
“He’s won over all these women,” Rudd’s daughter Terisa Davis said. “It always made me kind of roll my eyes. How are these women falling for this crap?”
Rudd used Match.com to seek out potential new girlfriends. His profile advertised that the movie Rambo had been made about his life, Davis said.
The lies could be funny, but Davis’s breaking point came when she realized her father had a special taste for vengeance in matters involving money.
He began threatening her, as well as his stepdaughters, to make sure he gained all the assets from his third wife Marks’ death. He demanded that Davis give him a Honda del Sol that Marks had left to her. If not, he said, the IRS would come after her for $13,000.
Sure enough, when tax time came Davis said her Dad filed false 1099 forms on her—he calculated the exact amount to file, so that she would owe $13,000 down to the penny, Davis said.
She decided to cut her dad out of her life at that point. But it also made her think he was smart enough at gaming the system that he’d never get punished for any crime.
“How do you mess with the federal government like that and not pay any price for it?!” she said. “You‘d think that kind of fraud would get someone in trouble, right?”
Rudd also threatened to get one of his stepdaughter’s law license revoked and another’s CPA license taken away, if they didn’t hand over insurance money from their mother’s death.
Rudd’s next project became his father. He had married a fifth wife by then and, after Rudd’s mother died, the couple moved his 91-year-old dad into their house.
“No discussion at all. The did it unilaterally,” Rudd’s twin brother Ronnie Rudd told Keith Morrison Investigates. The two twin brothers had once been close, but Ronnie said he was growing weary of dealing with his brother.
Then just a few weeks later, Ronnie Rudd got a message on his home answering machine. “It said, ‘Daddy died this past weekend and I buried him yesterday,” Ronnie Rudd said.
What Ronnie Rudd still didn’t know is that his father had signed over his entire estate to Donnie, just six days before his death.
“It raises a lot of questions. I have not talked to him since,” he said.
Davis said she and several other family members believe Rudd killed his dad.
In Rudd’s final act, he took on the persona of “Dr. Donnie.” He became the lead scientist in 2002 for a company called Regenetech that worked with NASA and would ultimately sell for $100 million, according to the Chronicle.
For those who might be skeptical of his credentials, Rudd’s website noted, “A complete CV on Dr. Rudd can be provided on a need to know basis.”
The company did research on stem cells in micro-gravity, but some began to doubt its potential.
"The science was not really as rigorous as I felt it should be," Mehboob Hussain, a former Regenetech consultant, told the Chronicle.
Company executives eventually accused Rudd of attempting to engineer a corporate takeover of the company, according to Keith Morrison investigates. He retired in 2009 and he and his fifth wife divorced in 2010.
This time around, Rudd was in his late sixties and apparently lacked the energy to find a new wife or jumpstart a new career. It seemed he might quietly live out his days in Texas.
But throughout the years, the daughter of Lauretta Tabak-Bodtke, who was murdered in 1991, had insisted on Rudd’s guilt. She brought cookies to police officers each year on the anniversary of her mother’s death and asked them not to forget, Lori Hart, another of Rudd’s stepdaughters, told Keith Morrison Investigates.
They eventually reopened the 1991 investigation and interviewed Rudd about the death of his bride in 1973.
His intelligence no longer dazzled. He gave vague and conflicting answers. When they asked him if he had struck Noreen Rudd before the accident, he said he couldn’t remember, according to the Chicago Tribune.
At age 76, Rudd was finally convicted of murder. His stepdaughter Cindy Mulligan wonders if that really counts as justice. Perhaps more fitting, she said, was that he showed up alone, with no one to support him. A stranger had to help him push his wheelchair through court when he faltered.
Cook County prosecutor Maria McCarthy said she thought the sentence was fitting for Rudd.
“He is clearly not going to get out of prison,” she said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “I hope that every killer who’s out there and hasn’t been caught hears about this case and thinks there will be a knock on the door.”
[Photos: Courtesy of Cindy Hart and Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office]