By Peter Ames Carlin
March 06, 2000 12:00 PM

For a real estate developer whose shrewdness had made him a millionaire many times over, Ron Rudin could at times seem all but blind—particularly when it came to Margaret, his tempestuous fifth wife. “I told him, ‘One of these days she’s going to get you,’ says his friend Jerry Stump, who runs a barbershop across the hall from the office Rudin kept on the quiet fringes of Las Vegas. “But he’d just shrug and say, ‘Oh, so what?’ He saw a lot of combat in Korea and felt if he could survive that, nothing could get him.”

He was wrong. A month after Rudin, 64, was last seen alive—Dec. 17, 1994—fishermen discovered his charred remains in an antique trunk beside the Colorado River, 30 miles southeast of the city. Rudin’s skull, found in a nearby ravine, had been pierced by several bullets.

Though Margaret Rudin, now 56, denied any connection to the crime, she immediately became a suspect—even before investigators learned she stood to inherit 60 percent of her husband’s $11 million estate (the rest going to several of Rudin’s friends and colleagues). “One of the first red flags is that she had to be pressured to report [his absence],” says the Las Vegas Metro Police Department’s lead investigator on the case, Det. Phil Ramos, who notes that three of Rudin’s employees first told police he was missing. When Las Vegas detectives subsequently found blood splatters on the walls and ceiling of the couple’s bedroom, Ramos’s suspicions deepened. As did those of Rudin’s longtime bookkeeper and friend, Sharon Melton. “I immediately thought Margaret was involved,” says Melton, 55. “She had just done too many suspicious things in the past.”

That was hardly Ron Rudin’s impression when he first met Margaret Mason in the summer of 1987. He was instantly taken with the vivacious woman with the southern drawl. Known for his penchant for black—in clothes, cowboy boots, even Cadillacs—in a sunbaked town where white rules, Rudin was a self-made millionaire frugal enough to reuse his old check stubs as note-paper. A gun enthusiast who carried a .45-cal. pistol in a side holster and a .22-cal. pistol in an ankle holster, he was known as well for his soft heart, often giving money to needy friends and employees.

Rudin’s bride-to-be was, in her own way, equally colorful. Born in Tennessee, the oldest of three daughters of Hollis Frost, a barber who died in 1987, and his wife, Eloise, 78, a now-retired store manager, Margaret moved around the country with her family before they settled in Zion, Ill., a small blue-collar town 50 miles north of Chicago. Married when she was 18, Margaret and her first husband, Gerald Mason, a construction worker, had two children during their decade-long marriage, after which she went on to wed four other men, including one she met after moving to Las Vegas in the early ’80s. That one had money, her mother recalls. “But Margaret’s not a gold digger,” she insists. “She’s an optimistic person [who] likes talking with people.”

But the conversation apparently soured after Margaret and Rudin married in September 1987, and the relationship began to deteriorate. The couple had wild fights, and a friend of Rudin’s claims that Margaret once fired a gun at her spouse. “They’d have a row,” says Rudin’s friend Stump. “And then she’d be here making eyes at me, trying to get Ron mad.”

Apparently that wasn’t the only way she played on her husband’s emotions. In 1991, police say, she planted a bug in Ron’s office and, according to Melton, confronted Ron with business secrets she claimed she had heard from a “friend of a friend.” On another occasion, according to Melton, an envelope arrived at Ron’s office containing two letters addressed to the IRS accusing him of financial crimes. Both appeared to be signed by Melton (whom Margaret may have hoped Ron would fire), but after taking the letters to a handwriting analyst, Ron discovered the author’s true identity: Margaret. “Who really knows what her plan was?” asks Detective Ramos. “Maybe it was just to alienate Ron from his friends.”

By 1994 the normally robust Rudin began to wonder if his ebbing strength might mean that his wife was poisoning him. He had a doctor test him for toxic substances—the results were inconclusive—but still wouldn’t end the relationship. “He said he didn’t want to start all over again,” Melton says. “And he didn’t want to be alone.”

Later that year, on Dec. 18, Melton became concerned when her boss didn’t show up for work. The next morning she and two other employees went to authorities. Margaret now claims she already had private investigators searching for her husband, but Ramos says she seemed unconcerned, casually explaining that she and her husband had “had a fight over another woman.” Weeks later, when the detective came to tell her that Rudin’s body had been found, he was again struck by Margaret’s detachment. “She didn’t ask what happened,” he recalls. “She just dug her knuckle into her eye. I was thinking, ‘What’s she doing?’ Then it dawned on me: ‘She’s trying to make herself cry.’

Not long after Rudin’s body was discovered, a day laborer called police to report that two weeks after Ron’s disappearance, Margaret had hired him to haul away a carpet and mattress that appeared soaked with blood. (Analyzed, the blood proved to be Rudin’s.) Other tipsters suggested the possible involvement of Yehuda Sharon, 43, a “financial adviser” of Margaret’s and, some claimed, her boyfriend. Police questioned Sharon, who provided an alibi. The investigation slowed, while police wondered who might have moved Rudin’s 220-lb. body. “We’d uncover bits and pieces,” says Ramos. “But all the things we looked at had to come together.”

Prosecutors were hoping to glean additional information from testimony during the January 1996 trial of a civil action brought against Margaret by Rudin’s other heirs, who had sued based on a clause in his will excluding any beneficiary who might have brought on his death. But the day before Margaret was to take the stand, she settled out of court for an estimated $550,000.

Then, six months later, investigators got a critical break. Rudin’s .22-cal. Ruger pistol, which he had reported missing shortly after his marriage to Margaret, was discovered—with a silencer attached—by a recreational diver under 15 feet of water in nearby Lake Mead. Arguing that Margaret was one of the few people to have had access to the gun, the district attorney took the case to a grand jury. But by the time it returned a murder indictment against her in April 1997, Margaret was gone.

Authorities entered Margaret’s name into the National Crime Information Center database for fugitives and waited for tips to come in. Meanwhile, Melton began a vigorous campaign to keep the case alive in the media. When America’s Most Wanted aired a segment on the murder last October, her efforts finally paid off. A tipster called to say that Margaret was in Revere, Mass., outside Boston. A few days later, police arrested Margaret—wearing a black wig and tinted contacts—in the dingy apartment she had been sharing with retired firefighter Joe Lundergan, 61, whom she had met while on the run in Mexico. “I have no reason to doubt her,” says Lundergan. “She’s going to have her day in court.”

But not immediately, since Margaret, according to lawyer Randall Power, “completely denies any involvement in the murder” and is still fighting extradition to Nevada. Melton, for one, is looking forward to the day she stands trial. “Ron always said, ‘Nobody cares about me; they just want my money,’ says the dead man’s old friend. “But I’m going to prove him wrong. I’m going to see this through to the end.”

Peter Ames Carlin

Johnny Dodd in Las Vegas, Tom Duffy in Revere and Barbara Sandler in Chicago