Bianca Rudolph, an American big game hunter, traveled with her husband to Zambia, in southern Africa, in 2016, determined to add a leopard to her trophy collection.
But Ms. Rudolph never made it home. She died from a fatal shotgun blast “straight on the heart” in a remote hunting cabin where the couple had been staying, according to court documents.
Lawrence Rudolph, her husband of 34 years, told investigators that a Browning 12-gauge shotgun went off by accident as she was packing it away. The authorities said their suspicions were aroused when he sought to have her body quickly cremated.
The consular section chief at the U.S. Embassy in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, “told the F.B.I. he had a bad feeling about the situation, which he thought was moving too quickly,” Donald Peterson, an F.B.I. special agent, wrote in a criminal affidavit that was recently unsealed.
Dr. Rudolph, a dentist with a practice in Greensburg, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, collected nearly $4.9 million in life insurance benefits in the months after Ms. Rudolph’s death, which the F.B.I. now says he orchestrated.
The authorities arrested Dr. Rudolph, 67, in late December and charged him with one count of murder of a U.S. national in a foreign country and one count of mail fraud, according to the newly unsealed court documents.
He pleaded not guilty in federal court in Colorado on Jan. 6 and remains in federal detention, which he is contesting. Dr. Rudolph maintains that Ms. Rudolph’s death was an accident.
“This is an outrageous prosecution against Dr. Larry Rudolph, a man who loved his wife of 34 years and did not kill her,” David Oscar Markus, a lawyer for Dr. Rudolph, said in a statement on Tuesday.
If convicted on the murder charge, Dr. Rudolph faces a maximum penalty of life in prison or the death penalty. The mail fraud charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. A 15-day jury trial is expected to begin on Feb. 28.
Investigators said that Dr. Rudolph was having an extramarital affair at the time of his wife’s death and had made adjustments to the life insurance policies for her that same year.
About three months after Ms. Rudolph’s death, Dr. Rudolph’s girlfriend moved into the home in Arizona where the Rudolphs had moved a few years earlier, investigators said. The executive director of the community association told the F.B.I. that Dr. Rudolph and his girlfriend had offered $3.5 million for another home in the same subdivision.
At the time of the shooting, the Rudolphs had traveled to the Kafue National Park in Zambia, an area roughly the size of New Jersey that is popular with safari operators. It is home to an array of wildlife, including leopards, cheetahs, hippos, lions and rare antelopes.
A hunting guide and a game scout told investigators that they rushed to the Rudolphs’ cabin on the morning of Oct. 11, 2016, after hearing a gunshot and found Ms. Rudolph bleeding from the left side of her chest.
Dr. Rudolph explained that his wife must have discharged the shotgun as she was trying to put it in its case, the authorities said at the time. The Zambia Police Service determined that the “firearm was loaded from the previous hunting activities and the Normal Safety Precautions at the time of packing the firearm were not taken into consideration causing the firearm to accidentally fire,” according to a summary cited in federal court documents.
Based on the gunshot wound, the F.B.I. and U.S. consular officials concluded that Ms. Rudolph had been shot from a distance of 6.5 feet to eight feet. When they tried to reconstruct the shooting, they determined that it was extremely unlikely that she had accidentally pulled the trigger on the shotgun.
The top consular official told an F.B.I. investigator that Dr. Rudolph had inquired about Zambia’s privacy laws and pushed to have his wife’s body cremated immediately, saying it would be “challenging” to have it flown to the United States. However, Agent Peterson wrote in the affidavit that Dr. Rudolph “frequently arranged for the transportation of animals hunted on his trip to be transported back to the United States,” a process that he added is often “cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming.”
A little more than two weeks after Ms. Rudolph’s death, a friend of hers contacted an F.B.I. official at the U.S. embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, and asked the bureau to investigate the shooting, court documents said. The friend, who was not identified, said it would be highly unlikely that Ms. Rudolph, who was Catholic, would have wanted to be cremated.
Shortly after Ms. Rudolph’s funeral, Dr. Rudolph bought his girlfriend a plane ticket to fly from Pittsburgh to Arizona, the F.B.I. said. The ticket was later canceled, but he purchased another ticket for an unidentified woman to fly to Las Vegas, where financial records showed that Dr. Rudolph had paid for a hotel room, according to the affidavit.
Mr. Markus, Dr. Rudolph’s lawyer, declined to answer questions about the state of his client’s marriage to Ms. Rudolph or whether he had remarried. In his statement, he said that Zambian authorities had determined that Ms. Rudolph’s death was an accident, a finding that he said had been corroborated by the insurance companies.
“Now, more than five years later, the government is seeking to manufacture a case against this well-respected and law-abiding dentist,” Mr. Markus said. “Dr. Rudolph looks forward to his trial where he will demonstrate his innocence.”
Justice Department officials declined to comment further about the case on Tuesday.
As part of a motion seeking Dr. Rudolph’s release, two of his adult children signed affidavits saying that they believed him to be innocent and that he did not pose a flight risk. They said that keeping him in custody created a health risk for Dr. Rudolph, who has a pacemaker.
Seamus Hughes contributed research.