He'd been shot in the head, decapitated, and set on fire. Who could have turned on the real-estate ace with such bloodthirsty fury? Even before the remains were found, circumstantial evidence was building against Rudin's 52-year-old wife, Margaret, who stood to inherit a handsome share of her husband's fortune. Rudin's friends also suspected Margaret, and the victim has thought that his wife was trying to poison him when he was alive. Then a chilling caveat was discovered in Rudin's living trust: should he die under violent circumstances, an investigation should be conducted. By the time authorities closed in on Margaret Rudin she'd disappeared. It would take two and a half years to hunt the Black Widow down, and to discover the secrets at the heart of poisonous marriage...
Now, reporter Michael Fleeman delivers a startling glimpse into the mind of a woman who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted. Fleeman also details the relentless pursuit of justice that would lead authorities from the glamorous facade of Las Vegas to a squalid apartment on the outskirts of Boston, to hold the remorseless wife accountable for her shocking crimes.
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Michael Fleeman is an associate bureau chief for People magazine in Los Angeles and a former reporter for The Associated Press. His books include the true crime stories The Stranger in My Bed and Love You Madly. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A car came to a stop on a lonely turnout above Lake Mohave, a long narrow reservoir straddling the Nevada–Arizona border. In the cold winter moonlight, Steven Vermilya and three companions piled out of the car after the ninety-minute drive from Las Vegas, unloading their tackle boxes and poles for a long night of fishing for striped bass and catfish. They would have this part of the lake to themselves. The nearest settlement was Nelson’s Landing, some five miles to the west, deep in Eldorado Canyon, where the bullet-riddled “No Trespassing” signs nearly outnumbered the hardy inhabitants.
Carrying their gear, the fishermen stumbled down the rocky slope until they reached a cliff that dropped off into nothing but darkness. They backtracked and found a loose gravel path that led them to an old boat launch area that had been washed out by floodwaters in the 1970s. They had nothing but a single flashlight and the moonlight to guide them—Steven acknowledged that the trip wasn’t well thought out—and by the time they reached water’s edge even the moonlight began to fade behind gathering clouds.
They fished for about four hours at the landing, where a century earlier steamers had unloaded men and supplies for the gold and silver mines up the canyon. Eldorado was a boomtown in those days, larger, richer and meaner than the dusty stopover on the desert floor that the Spanish explorers had named Las Vegas—The Meadows—for its oases. The notorious Indian outlaw Queho had lived and died in this wild canyon. His mummified body would be found in a cliff-side cave, the leathery remains lying next to the watchman’s badge belonging to one of the 20 people he was said to have murdered.
But this night, January 21, 1995, all was quiet and cool. A gentle rain began to fall. The fish weren’t biting. It was so dark the men couldn’t see the jagged mountains on the Arizona side of the lake. By 1 a.m.—now Saturday—they were tired and cold. They packed up their gear and headed for home. The trek back proved to be tougher than the hike down. The four men walked in a tight, single-file line, with Vermilya at the front, and a buddy behind him holding the flashlight. They stumbled and slipped on the steep, loose ground, basically stones and gravel on top of solid rock. They couldn’t find the trail they took down, so they headed up a ravine.
They were about halfway up the ravine when they spotted it. Steven didn’t even see it at first, focused as he was on the terrain in front of him. But the flashlight beam from behind him had caught it, just off to the right.
“There’s a human skull!” one of the men behind Steven shouted.
He thought they were teasing him. By now, the men were so uncomfortable that grim humor had set in. But this was no joke. There lay a skull on the rocky ground, resting on what would have been its left cheek. Clearly visible were the fillings in the teeth and what looked like cartilage holding the jaw to the rest of the skull.
Steven and two of the other men were trained military policemen, from Nellis Air Force Base north of Las Vegas. They knew enough not to touch it.
The plan was to get home to Las Vegas and call the police. They scampered up the ravine to their car, threw their gear inside and drove out of the overlook parking area, up the narrow road that wound through Eldorado Canyon.
They never seriously considered stopping in Nelson’s Landing to use a phone. There were no gas stations or stores, only the little houses and mobile homes, which didn’t look inviting. On the way to the lake, they had seen a sign on a building that read: “Do Not Stop Here.”
“After we found the skull,” Steven recalled, “the sign kind of took on a new meaning.”
By daybreak, they’d return to Eldorado Canyon, where riches and death have long been intertwined like the gold running through the quartz in a glory hole that turned out to be a deadly bridal chamber.
Detective Phil Ramos got the phone call at home about noon on Saturday, January 21, 1995. It was his supervisor, Sgt. Bill Keeton. “Guess what?” Keeton prodded him.
Ramos didn’t have to guess. He and Vaccaro weren’t the on-call detectives that weekend—that was Mike Franks and partner Brent Becker—so Keeton could only be calling about one thing. There was a break in the biggest case of their careers.
Ramos and Vaccaro arranged to drive separately to Nelson’s Landing, where they would meet Franks and Becker, who had been there for hours. It was a glorious afternoon, the kind of crisp, clean day that could only follow a rain, El Niño taking a breather. As they traveled across the desert, the road through Eldorado Canyon became narrow and winding after the little settlement of Nelson’s Landing, the center stripe disappearing altogether as the neglected pavement turned bumpy. All along the road, past the abandoned mines where the locals insisted there was still plenty of gold and silver left for anybody with the grit to go after it, one sign after another issued warnings and prohibitions: “No Shooting Area. Loaded Weapons Prohibited.” Others warned, “Watch Downhill Speed,” “No Dumping,” “No Trespassing,” “Road Narrows.” Many of them were aerated by shotgun blasts; the no-shooting admonition obviously carried little weight in this remote canyon.
Ramos and Vaccaro arrived at the parking area overlooking Lake Mohave. Much of the crime scene had been processed by the time Ramos and Vaccaro got there. The detectives were given the basics: Four fishermen had stumbled onto a skull in a rocky ravine the night before. Three of them had returned to Nelson’s Landing to point out the skull—the fourth had had to work that morning. They were interviewed and let go.
The scene was being processed by analyst Sheree Norman, who had been called to Nelson’s Landing at 11 that morning. She made a diagram of the area and had photos taken. The skull was located about 70 yards away from the roadway, down the steep embankment, in a gully carved out by rainwater running down toward the lake, another couple hundred yards away. The skull was remarkably well preserved; the jaw was still attached, the ligaments having survived the elements. The skull had a small blackened area, as if the head had been exposed to fire. In the back of the skull were three small holes—very possibly bullet holes.
As the police were being led to the skull by the fishermen earlier that morning, they found what could have been the source of the charring. A fire pit was located just a few yards up the hill from the skull. There were small bone fragments in the pit. Norman recalled that the area was “not unlike what you found in a barbecue pit.” Only this appeared to be a human barbecue. On a bluff above, Norman saw more bone fragments next to bird droppings. “We speculate there was a lot of animal activity helping themselves to what was left in the fire pit,” she said.
If this was the remains of a human, the fire had consumed any traces of clothing or shoes. There was not so much as a zipper or metal button. But amid the bones were some other things: metal bands, two hasps, a lock assembly—in the locked position—pieces of fire-blackened wood and remnants of a floral-design lining paper that had escaped the flames. Norman knew immediately where these had come from. They were what was left of an antique humpback chest, like the one Norman’s mother, an antique collector, had given her when she was growing up in New Jersey. From the metal straps, she could tell that the trunk was about standard size, 20 inches by 36 inches at the base. She had no way of telling how high it was, because the straps only went around the base of the trunk. The wood that would have made up the sides was nothing but little burned scraps.
Some effort was likely exerted to get the trunk to this spot, suggesting that the body had been in it. A rough gravel trail led down the hill, but passed well away from the burned area. From the trail, etched in the gravel, were what Norman suspected to be parallel drag marks, about 20 inches apart, leading toward the fire pit, but stopping far short of it.
After the coroner’s technician had removed the human remains, Norman had scooped up some of the burned dirt and rocks, the wood and the paper, and placed them in clean metal paint cans for testing in the police lab. She plucked out the hasps and the lock and put them in bags. She put the big metal strips in a large box. She also found a number of old-fashioned, square-shafted nails, which she collected.
From the fire pit, she measured the distance down the steep ravine to where the skull lay on its left side against three rocks, the eye sockets peering downhill. It was 35 feet away. She suspected it may have rolled down to the spot, but she couldn’t be sure.
One more piece of evidence would be found—explaining why Ramos and Vaccaro were called out on their day off. Located about 13 feet from the burn area draped over a rock, was a bracelet, badly tarnished, on which little jewels spelled out the name RON.
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