Updated January 2, 2020 - 2:00 pm
It has been 6,819 days since Margaret Rudin stood in front of a Clark County jury and learned her fate.
“Guilty,” the jury foreman said, locking eyes with Rudin, then 57, in a crowded courtroom.
Guilty of murder, the jury determined, in the death of her millionaire husband, Ron Rudin, who was shot in the head as he slept in the couple’s Las Vegas home in 1994.
Since that fateful day in 2001 when the verdict was announced, the now-76-year-old has waited patiently for another day — a new day when she would walk out of prison on parole. That day is now imminent.
“Apparently she will be released within a week or so,” her attorney, Greg Mullanax, said in an email to the Review-Journal on Friday.
Margaret Rudin’s case, even now, a quarter-century after her husband disappeared, is one of the most intriguing high-profile murder cases in Las Vegas history. It featured a wealthy man’s disappearance, surreptitious wiretaps, a former Israeli military officer granted immunity and burned remains at Lake Mohave, part of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Once Margaret Rudin was charged with murder, she, too, disappeared for nearly 30 months before being arrested, returned to Southern Nevada and convicted.
The lead detective on the case is convinced of her guilt. Others say Margaret Rudin was wrongly convicted.
“Her name should be cleared because I don’t think she did it,” Mullanax said. “She is an innocent woman who has been wrongly convicted and she’s been paying the price for the last 20 years.”
A grisly discovery
On Dec. 18, 1994, Ron Rudin disappeared without a trace.
The 64-year-old’s co-workers and friends were frantic with worry. They knew Rudin, a man consumed with making money, would never leave town without first tending to the particulars of his $11 million business enterprise.
“We saw that it was a missing persons case and we knew, ‘He’s dead,’” said retired Las Vegas police Homicide Detective Phil Ramos. “A guy like that just doesn’t go missing.”
Ron and Margaret Rudin each had four marriages under their belts when the two met in church. They wed in 1987.
Ramos said Ron Rudin financed Margaret’s dream of opening an antique store in Las Vegas. He bought her a brand-new car, and the couple enjoyed a life of luxury at their home at West Charleston Boulevard and Brush Street.
But the marriage was tumultuous. Ron Rudin confided in one longtime employee when the marriage soured that “no one cares about me. It’s all about the money.”
After Ron Rudin disappeared, Ramos was assigned the case with another veteran Las Vegas police homicide detective, Jimmy Vaccaro. Ramos said their investigation showed Ron Rudin disappeared shortly after the couple argued over money, with Ron telling Margaret he planned to divorce her.
“He didn’t show up for work on a Monday morning, which was totally out of character,” Ramos said. “This guy would call from other countries to see how his businesses were doing. He was a flat no-show and all his employees, his friends, knew something was wrong.”
On Jan. 21, 1995, a fisherman discovered charred remains near Nelson’s Landing at Lake Mohave. The body was burned beyond recognition. There was one part of the body, though, that wasn’t destroyed — the victim’s skull.
“A fisherman walking up the canyon from the river had stumbled across a human skull and they kind of freaked out, got to cellphone range and called the cops,” Ramos said. “As soon as we started looking around we knew it was Ron because of an ID bracelet. One of his wives had given him an ID bracelet that was a gold bracelet and, with diamonds, had spelled out his name R-O-N on it. It was right next to the burned remains of the body.”
An autopsy determined Ron Rudin was shot in the head. The homicide detectives went to talk to Margaret Rudin to see if she could shed light on what might have happened to her husband. Ramos said almost immediately, the detectives sensed something wasn’t right.
“We called Margaret and said, ‘We need to speak with you, there’s been some developments,’” Ramos said. “And she said, ‘Oh no, his body has been found, hasn’t it?’ And I thought, ‘I didn’t say anything like that at all. I just said there’s been some developments and we need to talk to you.’
“So we go out and told her there’s been some remains found out by the lake … and she didn’t react at all. No emotion whatsoever,” Ramos said. “We said we need to talk to you and she said, ‘OK, I’ll be with you in a second,’ and she’s going through her desk, rifling through papers and Jimmy and I are looking at each other and we said, ‘Margaret, is there anything we can help you with?’ And she said, ‘No I’m just trying to find his insurance policy.’”
Ramos said Margaret Rudin hadn’t reported Ron Rudin missing until his co-workers insisted. She claimed to detectives that the night before he went missing, he wanted to go to the movies, she didn’t, he took off and was never heard from again.
“We are focusing on her right away,” Ramos said. “She starts talking to us and Jimmy and I are looking at each other saying something is wrong here. This isn’t the right reaction. We’ve made hundreds of death notifications, someone starts crying, someone asks what happened, where are they. Well Margaret, she didn’t flinch. Didn’t even blink an eye.”
During the interview, Ramos said, it appeared Margaret Rudin was grinding her knuckle into her eye to make it look like she was crying. The detectives started to press her for more information. She asked if the detectives could come back in a couple of hours.
“So we get back to the office, Jimmy’s phone rings and an attorney calls and says, ‘I’ve been retained by Margaret Rudin and any questions you have have to go through me,’” Ramos said. “She lawyered up within 20 minutes of us leaving.”
A lengthy investigation
Ron Rudin didn’t have any kids to inherit his riches. His wife and the trustees of his estate, mostly friends and co-workers, stood to inherit the money.
In 1996, the heirs to Rudin’s estate tried to prove in probate court that Margaret Rudin killed her husband, which would have excluded her from receiving the money. The civil proceeding generated a confidential settlement.
“We couldn’t get any information from Margaret so the only source of information was from the trustees, his friends, who all pointed the finger at Margaret,” Ramos said.
Ramos said the investigation showed Margaret was secretly wiretapping her husband’s phone. The investigation also showed that Ron Rudin was having an affair, and Ramos claimed Margaret was, too. A woman dating Ron Rudin said her children received anonymous letters about the affair prior to Ron’s disappearance. The woman told authorities that Ron Rudin told her he believed he was being poisoned.
It took many months, Ramos said, but a relentless investigation turned up a significant amount of circumstantial evidence pointing to Margaret. A handyman named Augustine Lobato came forward and said Margaret Rudin hired him to remove a bloody mattress and carpet from the family home shortly after Ron disappeared.
“She told him to take the mattress to an antique store at Charleston and Highland … and we found it there where he told us he had put it,” Ramos said. “Blood on it. He took apart the bed frame, put it in a storage shed, and there was blood on that. He told us about this photo, a glamour shot above the bed … he said there was a picture of a lady and there were blood marks on it. He said the whole thing just gave him the creeps.”
The handyman said Margaret Rudin had asked him to mail a package but he never did. Inside the package, according to Ramos, were letters indicating Margaret Rudin had a close friend named Yehuda Sharon. The former Israeli military officer was granted immunity in the case but later said he had nothing to do with Ron Rudin’s death. He was never arrested or charged.
‘A good piece of evidence’
Ramos said that when Ron Rudin’s body was found, some metal strips were also found at the scene. Detectives worked with crime scene analysts to determine the strips were the framing of an antique trunk burned in the fire.
“I’m going through the inventory of her stuff in the antique store and I find two receipts for a humpback trunk, and one of them went to her sister,” Ramos said. “The other one was bought from an antique dealer in New Mexico. But it was nowhere in the store. So I called up the owner of the store in New Mexico … I told him I’m looking at a receipt from your shop like a year ago and it describes a blue humpback trunk. I said, “Do you know who you sold it to?’ ‘Yeah I sold it to that nice lady from Las Vegas’ … That was a good piece of evidence.”
An investigative grand jury was convened in Clark County. In July 1996, authorities got a huge break when a diver at Lake Mead recovered a .22-caliber handgun with a silencer wrapped in plastic. A firearms expert determined it was Ron Rudin’s gun, which he’d reported missing to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Ramos said a forensics examination determined it was Rudin’s gun and it was used to kill the real estate magnate as he slept.
Margaret Rudin was indicted on a murder charge in April 1997. But when authorities went to pick her up, she was gone.
Ramos said Margaret Rudin fled Southern Nevada, prompting more publicity for the case. The long-running television show “America’s Most Wanted” featured Margaret Rudin’s case relentlessly, describing her as the “Black Widow of Las Vegas.”
She was nearly arrested in Arizona based on a tip from the television show, but she slipped away. Ramos said she was also traced to Mexico where she met a firefighter from Massachusetts. She was finally arrested in a modest flat in Revere, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1999.
In May 2001, Margaret Rudin was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole.
Mullanax said it is widely recognized that Margaret Rudin received an awful defense in court. The jury foreman described one of her defense attorneys’ performance as “bordering on incompetence,” according to a Review-Journal story published the day after the verdict.
Margaret Rudin appealed her conviction and was granted a new trial by a District Court judge in 2008. However, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed that ruling.
“She had inadequate counsel,” Mullanax said. “I want people to know her case was not a slam dunk by any means. There are a lot of evidentiary problems with the case. She had negligent defense counsel at the time, her lead counsel was totally ineffective and it probably hurt her case more than anything else.”
Margaret Rudin continues to seek a new trial to clear her name, Mullanax said. She was granted parole in October and was scheduled to be released Dec. 15. However, her release is currently on hold. Mullanax said Rudin plans to live with her daughter in Illinois upon her release.
“I hope her life is better when she gets out,” Mullanax said. “She will be able to see her daughter and her grandkids. That’s one of the hardest things about being incarcerated, being 2,000 miles from her family. Hopefully she’ll be able to re-establish relationships with her daughter and family. She’s been in there for 20-something years and I think she’s doing well considering the circumstances.”