(CNN) — Lawrence and Bianca Rudolph shared their passion for big game hunting.
In late September 2016, the couple traveled from their Phoenix home to the southern African nation of Zambia, where Bianca Rudolph was determined to add a leopard to her collection of animal trophies. They carried two weapons for the hunt: a Remington .375 rifle and a Browning 12-gauge shotgun.
After killing other animals during the two-week journey – but not a leopard – Bianca Rudolph never made it home. She was fatally shot in her hunting cabin at dawn as she was packing to return to Phoenix, federal prosecutors allege in court documents.
Now Lawrence Rudolph, 67, is charged with foreign murder and mail fraud in the death of his wife of 30 years. He pleaded not guilty and took the stand in his own defense this week at his trial in Denver, CNN affiliate KMGH reported.
“I didn’t kill my wife. I couldn’t kill my wife. I wouldn’t kill my wife,” he told jurors.
Rudolph told investigators she heard the shot while in the bathroom and believed the shotgun had accidentally gone off while she was putting it away in its case, according to court documents. According to him, he found her bleeding on the floor of her cabin in Kafue National Park.
However, federal prosecutors allege that Rudolph killed his wife for insurance money and to be with his girlfriend.
CNN has contacted Rudolph’s attorney, David Markus, but has not received a response.
In a motion Markus filed in January with a list of his client’s assets, he said Rudolph had no financial motive to kill his wife. In the court document, he noted that Rudolph is worth millions, including a dental clinic near Pittsburgh valued at $10 million.
Colorado-based life insurance companies paid Rudolph more than $4.8 million after his wife’s death, according to court documents.
The rush to cremate his wife aroused suspicion, investigators say
In court documents, investigators allege that Rudolph rushed to cremate his wife’s body in Zambia after the shooting.
Rudolph scheduled the cremation three days after her death, according to court documents. After reporting her death to the US embassy in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, the consular chief “told the FBI that he had a bad feeling about the situation, that he thought it was moving too fast,” wrote the FBI special agent Donald Peterson on criminal statement.
Consequently, the consular chief and two other embassy officials went to the funeral home where the body was located to take photographs and preserve any possible evidence. When Rudolph learned that embassy officials had taken photos of his wife’s body, he was “furious,” Peterson wrote.
Rudolph initially told the head of the consulate that his wife may have died by suicide, but an investigation by Zambian security forces determined that it was an accidental shooting, Peterson wrote. Zambian investigators concluded the firearm was loaded from previous hunting activities and normal safety precautions were not taken, causing it to accidentally discharge in the deadly incident, according to court documents.
Insurance investigators came to a similar conclusion and paid out the policies.
“Zambian authorities and five insurers determined that Bianca Rudolph died accidentally. Witnesses told the FBI that Dr. Rudolph did nothing to interfere with the investigation. No physical evidence supports the government’s theory of murder,” Markus wrote. in the January motion.
Suspect wanted to be with his girlfriend, prosecutors allege
But federal investigators say there is more to the story.
Rudolph orchestrated his wife’s death as part of a scheme to defraud life insurance companies and allow him to live openly with his girlfriend, the FBI alleges.
Federal authorities became involved after a friend of the victim contacted the FBI and asked the agency to investigate the death because she suspected foul play. The friend said that Rudolph had had extramarital affairs in the past and that he had a girlfriend at the time of his wife’s death.
Rudolph’s then-girlfriend, who was not named in court documents, worked as a manager at his dental practice near Pittsburgh, and told a former employee that she had been dating him for 15 to 20 years, Peterson wrote. The former employee told the FBI that the girlfriend had given Rudolph a one-year ultimatum to sell his dental office and leave his wife, court documents allege.
Three months after Bianca Rudolph’s death, the girlfriend moved in with him, Peterson wrote in court papers. An executive director of his subdivision’s community association told investigators that Rudolph and his girlfriend tried to buy another house in the same subdivision for $3.5 million.
His injuries do not reflect an accidental discharge, says the FBI
Court documents also allege that evidence shows Bianca Rudolph’s injuries came from a gunshot fired from at least 2 feet away.
“An FBI special agent conducted tests to determine, by comparison with death scene photographs, the approximate position of the shotgun muzzle within the soft case at the time of discharge, as well as the patterns of resulting shots created by firing the shotgun with the case over the barrel at various distances,” the criminal complaint states.
A medical examiner determined that the patterns matching the wound seen in photographs of the body were created by a gunshot from a distance of between 60 centimeters and one meter.
“At that distance, there is reason to believe that Bianca Rudolph was not killed by an accidental gunshot as has been claimed,” the complaint states.
Bianca and Lawrence Rudolph moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona about four years before her death. Rudolph’s dental practice remained in Pennsylvania, and he commuted to and from his home in Phoenix.
Federal authorities allege that his wife’s murder was premeditated in order “to be able to falsely claim that the death was the result of an accident.”
But Markus has accused federal officials of relying on “weak evidence.” Rudolph’s two sons are certain his father did not kill his mother, Markus said, and have signed affidavits in support of him.
If convicted of murder, Rudolph faces up to life in prison or the death penalty.