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Lies, Bribes and Catholic Rites: The Dentist Accused of Killing His Wife on an African Safari

After Bianca Rudolph was found with a major gun-shot wound to her chest, Zambian police determined her death to be an accident. But numerous suspicious elements of the case have turned it into a multi-year murder investigation — and her husband of 34 years into the main suspect

Sometimes there’s one detail that unravels a labyrinthine murder case — one fact that unearths suspicions, questions and gut feelings. In this case, it was the simple fact that a husband rushed his wife’s cremation. A friend of the deceased caught wind of this, and recalled that her friend, Bianca Rudolph, a devout Catholic, didn’t believe in cremation. It was then, thinking of her friend being turned to ash, that she suspected the husband, Lawrence Rudolph, DDS, of killing his wife while the two were on a hunting safari in Zambia. 

The trouble was, the Zambian government had declared Bianca’s death an accidental shooting. And that’s what they told the insurance companies that paid out the life insurance claims, according to court documents. That was the official account, too — until just recently, when federal authorities in the U.S. arrested Rudolph, 67, and charged him with murdering his wife.

Bianca and Lawrence Rudolph had been married for 34 years and were both big game hunters. On this particular trip in Zambia, Bianca hoped to kill a leopard. While they were in the bush, she’d gotten lucky and killed numerous other animals, but the leopard she was after still eluded her. Though they’d been on safaris in Zambia multiple times before, this three-week safari was in late September to early October, to avoid the rainy season. The Rudolphs brought with them two hunting long guns — a Browning 12-gauge shotgun and a Remington .375 rifle. 

The fatal incident occurred early in the morning on October 11, 2016, the last day of their trip, while they were staying at a hunting camp in Kafue National Park. Their professional hunting guide was already up, busy working on paperwork in the camp’s dining hall, when he heard a gunshot crack against the still of the morning. The sound came from the Rudolphs’ cabin. 

The guide and a Zambian game scout both rushed to the cabin, where they “found Bianca Rudolph laying on the floor bleeding from the chest,” according to a criminal affidavit. The hunting guide told investigators that he noticed the shotgun was half-shoved into a partially-open zippered soft gun case. There was one spent shell on the floor. Lawrence told the Zambian police that he was in the shower at the time, and his wife was alone in the bedroom, when he heard the shotgun fire, per court documents. As best as he could recall, Rudolph told Zambian police that “he suspected the shotgun had been left loaded from the hunt the previous day and that the discharge occurred while she was trying to pack the shotgun into its case.” 

The consular section chief for the U.S. Embassy in Zambia received a call from Lawrence that same day at roughly 4:30 p.m. He spoke with Rudolph about his wife’s death, and as he later told the FBI, Rudolph “quickly turned the conversation to the issue of cremating Bianca’s body and leaving the country.” Two after that, a funeral home contacted the consular chief, informing him that the cremation of Bianca was scheduled for the next day. This gave him an unsettling feeling. So, in an attempt to preserve evidence for any future investigation, he and embassy officials went to the funeral home to take photos of the deceased.

He was able to document Bianca’s injuries, including the main gunshot wound on her chest, which he noted was “straight on the heart” and not “a tight group” of pellets. This stood out to the 20-year veteran of the Marines, who was familiar with firearms and the damage they did to the human body. Based on the spread pattern of the pellets and the look and size of the wound, the consular chief estimated the distance separating Bianca’s chest and the shotgun muzzle when it was fired was roughly 6.5 to 8 feet, according to court documents.

After Lawrence heard that the consular chief had visited the funeral home, he called the embassy and was reportedly “livid.” The consular chief offered to meet with the grieving husband to discuss why he’d taken evidentiary photos, but according to him, Lawrence declined his invitation. The two men finally met in person on October 14th at the Ambassador St. Ann’s Funeral Home so they could exchange Bianca’s passport and hand over any documents Lawrence would need to transport his wife’s remains back to the U.S. The consular chief asked Lawrence if he wanted the embassy to contact any next-of-kin back home, but Lawrence reportedly declined the offer. 

What Lawrence did want to talk about was the investigation into his wife’s alleged accidental shooting death, per the consular chief. Lawrence “repeatedly asked about the Privacy Act and its applicability to Zambia. More specifically, he asked questions about who would be able to access information about Bianca’s death, including the police reports,” the consular chief told the FBI. The consular chief asked Lawrence what type of gun killed his wife, but Lawrence “claimed not to know and described it as an antique.” He then speculated that perhaps his wife took her life on purpose, telling him, “Bianca may have committed suicide by shooting herself with the shotgun,” according to court documents. For their part, the Zambian police determined that the death was an accident. 

Two weeks later, after a friend of Bianca’s heard the news of her death, she called the FBI legal attache in Pretoria, South Africa, and asked them to investigate the shooting. The friend told the FBI of numerous extramarital affairs and that Lawrence had been “having an affair at the time of Bianca’s death,” per the criminal affidavit. But mostly, she fixated on the cremation. She told the FBI that the Rudolphs’ children knew nothing about the cremation until a week after it was done and that she “believed the cremation to have been against Bianca’s wishes because Bianca was a strict Catholic who had once expressed disapproval that [a friend’s] husband was cremated.” 

To her, Bianca’s Catholicism also tied to a motive. She told the FBI, “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.” 

Meanwhile, the life insurance companies were looking at paying out on Bianca’s policy, since it had been ruled an accident by the Zambian police. Still, they hired private investigators to determine the cause of death, and found that the Rudolphs had seven life insurance policies, with the earliest dating back to 1987, but they’d all been “updated and adjusted” at around the same time, earlier that year, according to court documents. 

When under investigation by the FBI, Lawrence said he and Bianca had always planned to be cremated. “He also explained that it was ‘challenging’ to transport a body from another country to the United States because it required the purchase of a lead-lined coffin,” according to court documents. However, FBI investigators would later note that “Lawrence frequently arranged for the transportation of animals hunted on his trip to be transported back to the United States,” per court documents. As the FBI learned from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, he did this even though “sending such animals back to the United States is often cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming.”

As for the shotgun that supposedly took Bianca’s life, in September, 2021, FBI investigators arranged for 15 female volunteers who were of comparable size to Bianca to attempt to reach the trigger of the Browning shotgun that had killed her, while pointing the muzzle at their chest in a manner similar to how she’d been shot. Per court documents, it was deemed physically impossible for a woman of Bianca’s size to reach the trigger.

Beyond the physical evidence, investigators continued to look at potential motives for a murder. The wife of the hunting guide hired by the Rudolphs had plenty to say that helped the FBI piece together their theories. According to her, the two couples had first met in 2010 at a hunting convention and had grown close over the following six years. To that end, she’d been at the hunting camp until October 8th, three days before the incident. She returned the day after and told the FBI that she “personally witnessed Lawrence pay an official to expedite the [cremation] process.” She also found it odd when he wouldn’t take his children’s calls after they learned of their mother’s death, according to court documents. 

The most damning witness that the FBI spoke with, however, was a former employee at Three Rivers Dental, Lawrence’s practice in Pittsburgh. He told investigators that Rudolph had a girlfriend — the manager of Three Rivers Dental. The girlfriend reportedly told him that she had “been involved in a long-term relationship with Lawrence for approximately 15 to 20 years.” She also disclosed to the former employee that she’d given Lawrence “an ultimatum of one year to sell his dental offices and leave Bianca,” per court documents.

When the FBI checked the validity of those claims, agents discovered that Lawrence and the alleged girlfriend had traveled to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, numerous times before Bianca’s death, as well as several months after. The FBI also learned that on the day after Bianca’s funeral, Lawrence “purchased a ticket for Girlfriend to travel from Pittsburgh to Phoenix on October 24, 2016.”

In December 2021, on a return trip from Mexico, U.S. authorities arrested Lawrence on one count of murder of a U.S. national in a foreign country. He has entered a plea of not guilty in federal court, and his lawyer has maintained that Lawrence is innocent.

During his detention hearing, the FBI had to admit that the case may be difficult due to the fact that there were “no eyewitnesses to the murder, nor is there fingerprint, blood spatter or gunshot residue evidence.” Not to mention, the fact that insurance companies have paid out on the multiple policies after private investigators couldn’t prove foul play, and after the Zambian police investigated and determined the shooting was an accidental death. 

And so, in February, a new hunt begins. But this time, it’s in court, and there’s no prey involved — it’s a hunt for justice for Bianca Rudolph.