Ruthless: A Long-Lost Confession Letter May Finally Tell the Real Story of Winnie Ruth Judd
Winnie Ruth Judd on the witness stand.
Arizona Historical Society/Winnie Ruth Judd Collection
Winnie Ruth Judd is the stuff of legend. She murdered her two best friends one night in 1931, the story goes, and then, perhaps with help from an accomplice, cut one of them into pieces, packed both bodies in a couple of trunks, and hopped the Sunday night train to Los Angeles, her gruesome luggage in tow.
Her case was as big in the early 1930s as O.J. Simpson's was in the mid-'90s. It became international news and, more than 80 years later, has never really left us. Sentenced to the state mental hospital in 1933, Ruth managed to make headlines for decades by escaping seven times. The last time she escaped, in 1962, she stayed gone for seven years, relocating to northern California and becoming Marian Lane.
After her parole in 1971, her story took on a second life as the subject of bestselling books, whodunit websites, even a motion picture in which all the characters were played by marionettes.
Three new books about the case are forthcoming.
Part of its appeal is that the Winnie Ruth Judd story has always offered more questions than answers, even for those who've studied the case for decades. Did she kill her friends because they were sleeping with her married boyfriend? Were the women really lesbian party girls? Could she really have dismembered a body all by herself? If not, who was her accomplice?
But the recent discovery of a letter, written in Ruth's own hand in April 1933 from Florence prison's death row, has changed the minds of attorneys involved in defending Ruth as well as historians who've spent decades researching her story. They point to this letter, written to Ruth's attorney, Howard G. Richardson, and donated anonymously to the Arizona State Archives only a few years ago, as a game-changer.
Added to the state archives in 2002, the letter remained undiscovered until now. No journal published news of this shocking find; no Judd historian went public with this significant piece of Winnie Ruth evidence.
Corroborated by police reports, trial transcripts, and recently uncovered affidavits, this newly recovered confession letter answers long-held questions about when and how the murders took place, and inspires new theories about their aftermath. While most have long believed that Ruth killed her friends in self-defense, then had help packing them up and getting out of town, this recently discovered letter, which Ruth refers to as "my first and only confession," returns to the story she told in the beginning, about sneaking into the girls' bungalow and shooting one of them while she slept, then fighting with the other over the gun before killing her, too. She had, she claims in this letter, no partner in crime.
"It's the first version of her story I've ever read that really matches up with things she told me privately," says Larry Debus, who was Ruth's last lawyer in 1969. "It doesn't answer every question, but it accounts for a lot of what we've only guessed at in the past."
One question that remains unanswered is this: Where has this letter, now available online as part of the State Archives' Arizona Memory Project, been hiding all these years? And why did pretty much no one know it existed for so long?
The trunks and luggage that held the dead bodies -- one of them dismembered.
Arizona Historical Society/Winnie Ruth Judd Collection
Winnie Ruth Judd may have ended up the early 20th-century equivalent of a Kardashian, but she started out Winnifred Ruth McKinnell, born 1905 in Oxford, Indiana. Long before she was dubbed "The Velvet Tigress" by tabloid reporters, this young beauty was the 26-year-old bride of a 48-year-old doctor who dragged her to Mexico, where he worked as a medic for American silver miners and became addicted to morphine. The couple eventually decamped for sunny Phoenix, which they hoped would help dry out Ruth's lifelong tuberculosis.
A very few years later, she was the stuff of national headlines. In a story featuring every shocking immorality of the day -- murder, infidelity, social disease, drug addiction, sex perversion -- Ruth was a venal star. Daily newspapers nationwide detailed her horrendous crimes: How Ruth argued with her friends Agnes "Anne" LeRoi, and Sarah Hedvig "Sammy" Samuelson (who may have been lovers) over their mutual boyfriend, a very married country club playboy named Jack Halloran. How Sammy came at Ruth with a gun, while Anne beat Ruth over the head with an ironing board. How Ruth was shot in the hand wrestling the gun from Sammy, shot both girls in self-defense, then butchered Sammy and shoved both bodies into luggage and headed for L.A. How, after the trunks began to leak blood all over the L.A. train station, Ruth took off, hiding out for a week before surrendering to police.
Her murder trial, later stories reported, was a zoo; the investigation into the murders bungled by local police and plagued by rumors of good-old-boy cover-ups. When neither Ruth nor Halloran were called to the stand, the jury at her criminal trial handed down a "guilty" verdict, not because they wanted to see her hang, they said, but to force her to reveal the name of her accomplice.
She was spared the gallows and sent instead to the Arizona State Hospital, where she lived (and from which she occasionally went missing) for 36 years.
"We all thought she was crazy, to some extent," says Debus, who likes to remind people that no one who knew her ever called her Winnie. "She only ever went by Ruth," he says.
But after reading the newly discovered confession letter, Debus isn't so sure Ruth was all that insane. In it, she tells a version of her story that's hard to ignore. It's one she told time and again, according to court documents and pre-trial interviews, but that no one seemed to want to hear. It's a chilling story of premeditated murder.
In a recently discovered letter written in 1933 to her attorney, Winnie Ruth Judd confesses to premeditated murder.
Arizona Historical Society/Winnie Ruth Judd Collection
April 6, 1933
I am writing the absolute truth of this case, in full confidence, that you will use it as you see fit in your best judgment. Mr. Richardson, I have full confidence in you and trust you.
This is my first and only confession of the case of the homicide of Anne LeRoi and Hedvig Samuelson.
Anne was used to the world, I truly was not. Jack was the only man I had gone with since my marriage. I was ashamed of things I had done. I could not openly compete with her, I was married and ashamed to. Day after day she lorded it over me, always smiling and fresh and sweet, well knowing she was hurting me with her taunts.
Many evenings Anne would kiss Jack and caress him in our presence, then after he was gone gloat over not caring a thing for him but merely working him for money.
John J. Halloran, or "Happy Jack," as the national media dubbed him in 1931, is better remembered today than either of Ruth's victims. Referred to in print as "a wealthy lumberman," the co-owner of the Halloran-Bennett Lumber Company was one of a dozen country club playboys whose names were linked to the party girl circuit to which Ruth, Anne, and Sammy belonged. But it is Halloran's name that still sticks to the case, in part because Ruth repeated it as often as she could for the next 60 years.
She met him while nannying for the Leigh Ford family of West Lynwood Street. The Hallorans lived next door, and Jack, an incorrigible philanderer, set his sights on the frail, tubercular Ruth. They sat together on the Fords' front porch. Dr. Judd was away at a sanitarium, drying out again, Ruth told Jack. She was lonely.
Their affair commenced on Christmas Eve of 1930 and would continue until the night before she murdered her two closest friends, with whom Halloran was also by then keeping company.
Ruth naively mistook Jack's sexual attention for love, even while he was blatantly sleeping with her friends and having her procure other pretty girls for him and his buddies.
"She was young and naive and thought he loved her," says Patrick Millikin of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, a longtime researcher of the Judd case. "From what we see in the confession letter and elsewhere, it's Ruth's delusion and periods of psychosis that are at the heart of the story."
Halloran is usually remembered as Ruth's accomplice in the crime. She claimed, in several versions of her story, that she dragged him to the scene of the crime to prove she'd shot the girls, and that it was Halloran who arranged for the dismemberment of Samuelson's body with a call to a mysterious "Dr. Brown." Later, the story goes, someone other than Ruth packed both bodies in a streamer trunk. It was Halloran, she sometimes contended, who cooked up the plan to take the bodies on the night train to Los Angeles, where she'd be met by a friend of his who would dispose of the bodies.
But in this newly discovered letter, Ruth claims she alone hatched the gruesome plan. And while it seems far-fetched that a small, frail woman with a bullet lodged in her left hand could have packed two corpses into a steamer trunk after dismembering one of them, it's even more far-fetched, many agree, that a well-connected playboy would have gone to such peculiar lengths to cover up a crime he wasn't even present at.
"If you're halfway sane and you're faced with one of your several girlfriends having killed her two roommates, you don't jump in and say, 'Let's chop them up and take them on a trip,'" says local defense attorney and former superior court judge Mel McDonald, who reviewed the April 6 confession letter and finds it the most plausible account of the story he's read. "Even in the heat of the moment, you look at the options and you say, 'I can risk being exposed as cheating on my wife or I can risk getting involved in cutting up bodies and shipping them to California and hope I don't get caught. No reasonable person is going to choose the second one."
Larry Debus agrees, pointing out that the oft-quoted Dr. Brown theory, in which Halloran threatened to blackmail a prominent physician who was running a back-alley abortion mill if he didn't dismember Samuelson's body, doesn't wash, either.
"You're a doctor and you get a call in the middle of the night from some guy who says, 'I have stuff on you, and if you don't come cut up a body for me, I will tell everyone you're doing abortions'?" Debus says, chuckling. "You don't jump in your car and head over to a crime scene. You look at your options and you say, 'I'll risk being blackmailed.' And then you roll over and go back to sleep."
Debus points out another obvious clue: That Halloran wouldn't have risked bringing in another witness to Ruth's crimes. "And then the two of them put her on the train to L.A. so that she would own them for the rest of their lives?" he asks. "It's just bullshit."
Even Ruth's own husband told the Board of Pardons and Paroles, on March 22, 1933, that he couldn't imagine Halloran was involved in the way Ruth claimed.
"I know Jack Halloran, and it is very difficult for me to believe that Jack had anything to do with that," Dr. Judd said of his wife's former lover.
"The guy who gets screwed in this story is Halloran," McDonald ventures. "I don't think he had a damn thing in the world to do with this. A guy like that would have taken one look at the mess his girlfriend made and run for home."
Halloran was keen to have his name out of the headlines. In an affidavit issued March 20, 1933 and now on file at the Arizona State Library Archives and Public Records, a correspondent of Ruth's brother tells of a meeting with Halloran's attorney, A. N. Smith. A written statement from Ruth exonerating Jack, Smith is quoted as saying, might convince Halloran's powerful friends on the pardon board to commute her death sentence. It's one explanation for the April 6 confession letter, in which Ruth takes full blame for the murders, dismemberment, and flight to L.A., never once mentioning Halloran.
But Jim Dobkins, who authored the first book about Ruth in 1973, Winnie Ruth Judd: The Trunk Murders, thinks the letter is "just another of her many confessions, the one attempt to have Halloran named as an accomplice."
Although Halloran was indicted as an accessory to Ruth's crime, the complaint was dismissed after Ruth testified that she killed in self-defense, a second-degree murder charge. With no first-degree murder charge, there was no crime to which Halloran could be an accessory.
"By claiming to have deliberately killed Anne, as she does in this letter," Dobkins points out, "then she's admitting to a crime. And now Halloran can be an accessory to that crime." There was another reason for the letter, says Dobkins, who has just released a new edition of his Judd book. "She doesn't mention Halloran in this letter," he says, "because she still loved him, and was hoping that he would come bail her out."
Ruth sometimes claimed that it was Halloran's plan for her to head to L.A. to dispose of the bodies. "If Halloran is involved, why are you borrowing money to take bodies on the train to Los Angeles to dump in the ocean?" attorney Michael Hamblin asked, addressing Ruth posthumously in notes from a mock retrial of her case held in 2012.
"If Halloran is an accomplice, like you charge, why are you not using Halloran's car to dispose of the bodies in the desert, thereby avoiding a multitude of potential witnesses in two states, a 48-hour delay, and having to tell your husband?"
If, as she claims in the April 6 confession, Halloran was not there to assist her, then it's also likely that heading to Los Angeles was Ruth's idea.
Judd expert Philip Warbasse
"The two men she trusted most in the world happened to live in L.A. at the time," says Judd expert Philip Warbasse, who lives in Los Angeles and has authored an unpublished book about Judd and a website devoted to her case. "Her husband and her brother. She figured they would fix things for her."
In fact, Ruth made a beeline for her brother after arriving in California. And police interviews with Burton have him quoting Ruth: "She told me to take those trunks and dump them in the ocean, and not to ask any questions," he tells police.
If he had asked questions, Burton McKinnell might have gotten an earful. About what was in those trunks that were leaking blood all over Union Station. About what really happened back in Phoenix. And about the taunts that ultimately led to Anne LeRoi's demise.
The public was charged 10 cents to tour the murder house before police collected evidence.
Arizona Historical Society/Winnie Ruth Judd Collection
It was not what Jack did but the continual taunts made by Anne which drove me beside myself . . . I could not stand taunts. I just went crazy.
Those taunts kept me awake, I could not sleep. I cried. I even prayed. I wrote my parents to please come to me. I was losing my mind. Wild ideas kept me awake. I took sleeping sedatives, Luminal. I wrote Doctor my nerves were breaking. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I loved Anne still, but those taunts. I would take more medicine to quiet my nerves, cried to please get things off my mind, to sleep.
Taunts. It's what you notice first about this recently discovered confession letter. Even before you realize how lucid this version of the story is, or how many questions it answers, you notice how many times Ruth repeats the word "taunt." Attorney Hamblin notices this; so does Mel McDonald. In the space of a few paragraphs, Ruth uses the word 11 times.
Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
TicketsTue., Aug. 29, 6:40pm
All You Can Eat Value Pack - Mercury v Sun
TicketsFri., Sep. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Rising Football Club vs. Seattle Sounders 2
TicketsSat., Sep. 2, 7:30pm
All You Can Eat Value Pack - Mercury v Dream
TicketsSun., Sep. 3, 1:00pm
Phoenix Mercury vs. Atlanta Dream
TicketsSun., Sep. 3, 1:00pm
"What were these taunts?" wonders Megan Abbott, a Judd historian and author of Bury Me Deep, a 2009 novel based on Ruth's story. "Maybe Anne was reminding Ruth that she was a procurer, a hooker, and a pimp -- and a bad one, too! One of the girls she brought to Jack had syphilis!"
Scott Coblio, another Judd historian and the Los Angeles filmmaker whose 2007 film Murderess depicted Ruth's story using marionettes, draws a line between Ruth's murder of Anne and a much-documented incident from her early life, also mentioned in the April 6 letter.
"In 1922, Ruth accused her boyfriend, Frank Hull, of getting her pregnant and then abducting her," Coblio points out. "But she didn't do it to hurt the guy. She did it to stop a girlfriend from taunting her about how she couldn't hold a man. It's an insanity trigger for Ruth's own psychosis. If you make fun of Winnie Ruth, she's going to get even."
But first, Coblio says, she's going to self-medicate.
"The pills are important," Abbott says, "because they're part of a powder keg. Her husband is a drug addict, her boyfriend is sleeping with everyone, her girlfriend is taunting her, and she's coping by taking a barbiturate used to calm epileptic seizures. Something's about to blow."
Abbott is referring to the phenobarbital, marketed in 1931 as Luminal, that Ruth was using to calm her nerves. This over-the-counter remedy was good, according to the dosage label, for treating everything from "vomiting of pregnancy" to "insanity."
Phenobarbital can impair thinking, according to pharmacist Keith Boesen, director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center. Now a prescriptive drug, it and other barbiturates have been phased out in favor of valium and Xanax, both safer to administer.
"Luminal was a downer, rather than a stimulant," he says, "and might lead you to the same kind of bad decisions you'd make during a drinking binge."
But can Luminal lead you to kill? "If you have a psychotic disorder and you're using it to numb the pain of daily life or because the voices in your head are getting too loud," Boesen muses, "phenobarbital might also cloud your thinking and block your higher emotions."
The murder house today
Friday night I expected Jack. He did not come. I went to bed. Again I could not sleep. I got up, went over to Anne's house. My brain whirling. I was so excited I was panting for breath.
Never did I have the slightest dream of hurting Sammy. She simply never entered my mind. Except to get Anne, stop those taunts so I could sleep. Nothing more did I think of. I took the gun and a knife. How I would do it I was not sure. But I had no intention of harming Sammy. Jack was as intimate with Sammy as Anne, but it was Anne's cruel taunts that haunted me.
. . . I hid in the house next door. Anne and Sammy returned to the bedroom . . . After they retired, I went to the back door, laid the knife and my shoes outside the door, then crept in the unlocked front door . . . I sat down on the couch in the same dark room and soon fell to sleep clutching the gun.
I awakened, Sammy had gone to the bathroom, that insane desire, that power lead me on, I started for Anne. My stomach was turning inside out really twitching, jumping out of me, outside not a tremor, but my stomach jumping like convulsions. I retreated, curled up and went to sleep again. I went back to sleep again. Oh again and again all night I don't know how many times. Sammy kept going to the bathroom, I started for that bedroom and retreated each time so exhausted I immediately went to sleep.
Among the many mysteries surrounding the murders is when exactly they took place. In some accounts, Ruth claims that the murders took place after the quarrel on Friday night; in more versions of the story (and in the April 6 confession letter) she returns to her original tale of hiding in the front room of the house on Friday night, then shooting the girls on Saturday morning -- Anne in cold blood, Sammy after a tussle over the gun. Some witnesses claimed, in police interviews and court testimony, that they heard shots on Friday night. Others claimed Saturday morning.
Dobkins attributes the confusion over the time of the murder to The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd, the acclaimed true-crime account by former New Times editor Jana Bommersbach. In her book, Bommersbach, who didn't respond to interview requests for this story, casts Ruth as an ill-fated scapegoat of Halloran's and a pawn of unscrupulous cops, reporters, and prosecutors who ran Phoenix in the 1930s. She contends that Ruth killed in self-defense on Friday night, then suggests in the book's final pages that a second gunman, perhaps Halloran himself, may have finished off Samuelson on Saturday morning after discovering she hadn't died in the gun battle.
To prove her theory, Bommersbach points to newspaper reports in which an autopsy surgeon claims two different caliber bullets were found in the girls' head wounds, a .25 caliber bullet in Samuelson's, and a .32 caliber bullet in LeRoi's. According to retired Arizona Republic reporter Charles Kelly, who's studied Ruth's case extensively, this story was rebutted in later newspaper stories. He points out that both the autopsy report and a police interview with the autopsy surgeon confirm that a .25 caliber bullet was recovered from Anne's head.
"Jana writes that maybe the autopsy surgeon was mistaken about the caliber of the bullet," Kelly says. "Based on what?"
Jerry Lewkowitz, a trial attorney whose father, Herman Lewkowitz, was on Ruth's defense team, points out that his dad was focused on the ballistics evidence and would have challenged the idea that Anne was shot with a .32 caliber bullet.
"It would have been a great defense," says Lewkowitz, who owns a vast collection of Judd documentation. "And Winnie, who wanted to make Halloran look as guilty as possible, would certainly have said something about a second gun."
Further proof that the two-gun theory is bogus resides in the State Archives: All of the bullets extracted from the women's bodies, as well as the one removed from Ruth's hand, are tucked into paper envelopes, an 83-year-old State's Evidence tag still dangling from each. All are .25 caliber bullets.
"Jana had a very noble mission, in the end," Warbasse ventures. "She wanted to make up for all the wrongs she felt had been done to Ruth. She started out as a reporter of the case, and ended up playing angel to Winnie Ruth Judd."
"It's pretty well known that Jana formed a relationship with her subject while writing her book," says Rebekah Tabah, a photo preservationist at the Arizona Historical Society who uncovered a cache of long-lost Judd material in 2008. "That makes it difficult for a reporter to be objective, of course. To be fair, Jana didn't have access to a lot of material that has been discovered since she wrote her book, including this new confession letter."
Both of Ruth's hands were injured during the murders.
Herald-Examiner Collection /Los Angeles Public Library
Morning! I heard the milk man. Sammy went to the bathroom again. I started to call her, tell her I was there. I really did. Then I began shaking inside and remembered what I had come to do so this time I crept past the bathroom door, shot Anne. It was a low shot. Sammy called, What fell, Anne? I was hurrying past the door Sammy came out demanded to know what was the matter. I was limp she completely took the gun from my hands. I was non-resistant. I said, Sammy, I am crazy. I have lost my mind give me that gun and I will blow my brains out right here in this door. She held the gun and said, you get out of here right this minute.
... I then picked up the knife and went back after her with the knife. As I grabbed for the gun, I stabbed her in the shoulder, the fight with Sammy in that breakfast room door; her own finger on the trigger when the shot went through her chest; our fight is all about as I have always related she shot me through the hand as I grabbed for the gun; the gun jammed; we fell to the floor, struggled and I finally got the gun and shot her and in my wild state I really do not remember where in the head.
Most people familiar with the Winnie Ruth Judd case know of the infamous "drainpipe letter," written by Ruth while she hid out in the Broadway department store in L.A., and which she tore up and attempted to flush down the toilet. In that letter, she first tells the story of self-defense to which she would later return. In the drainpipe version, Ruth offers a meandering, nonsensical tale of shooting LeRoi to remove her as a witness after murdering Samuelson. Ruth initially backpedaled on this flimsy tale, which was easily disproven.
By contrast, the April 6 letter not only mirrors Ruth's earliest testimony in 1931, it also matches versions she reportedly told in private to her legal counsel. It matches the version her husband told the pardon board. It matches the version Ruth forbade three of her former attorneys to tell in court. It matches the version, quoted by prosecuting attorney Arthur T. La Prade, from Ruth's secret session at the state penitentiary. It matches a 1933 jailhouse interview conducted by Sheriff James McFadden. It matches, almost exactly, the version told by Ruth herself at Jack Halloran's indictment hearing. And it matches the Los Angeles Examiner version dictated by her husband and which Ruth herself signed off on.
(Asked by noted trial psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Catton about the veracity of the Examiner story, Ruth replied, "Well, I don't know whether I am going to tell that story or not." Catton reported, in a transcript from this November 1931 interview, "She said that she didn't know what story she would tell now or at the trial, and that she would lie at the trial if it were necessary." The day before, Catton asked her if she'd ever cut a human being in her life. She replied, "I am going to say that I did.")
"The circumstances of this particular confession letter are crushing," says attorney Mel McDonald. "Not because it matches other confessions, but because of how it was made. This wasn't taken in a police interrogation room, where officers are using tricks to get her to confess to something. This was written privately, to an attorney she claims to trust, who's going to glean from it what he can to help her."
Larry Debus agrees. "Ruth made it clear to me she'd been afraid to tell the truth for a long time, because she thought the country club guys were out to get her," he says. "But by the time she wrote this April 6 letter, she had a new attorney from Pinal who didn't know the Phoenix country club set. She probably thought, Here's a guy with some juice. I'm going to tell him the truth and see what he can do for me."
Sunny Worel, the great-niece of Sammy Samuelson, wondered if the whole point of Ruth's death row confession meant that she was either crazy or trying to look like she was. "Because, you know, she ate a razor blade almost as soon as she finished the letter," Worel wrote in an e-mail to this reporter only weeks before she died of colon cancer, at age 46, this past July.
"I think writing a letter about killing and butchering, then trying to commit suicide could bolster your insanity plea. Remember, that letter was written while she was hoping to be spared the gallows and be sent to the loony bin instead."
(Worel devoted her life to solving the mysteries of her great-aunt Sammy's murder. She traveled the world in search of clues, journeying as far as Juneau, Alaska because Sammy had lived there once. Worel, a research librarian, created an exhaustive, 242-page document detailing every nuance of the case.)
"In those days, you couldn't claim insanity as your defense until you admitted to a crime," Debus explains. "We didn't have 'guilty by reason of insanity' in 1931."
But while Ruth did indeed confess to the crime of murder in her April 6 confession, she also destroyed her own insanity plea, Debus says. "She shows she knows right from wrong in this letter. She demonstrates premeditation, planning, and an understanding of consequence. That's what a jury needs to determine she's sane. She's not looking crazy by cutting up a body, she's negating an insanity defense."
That's why, McDonald believes, Ruth's attorney hid the letter away where no one could find it. "I think her attorney read this letter and said, 'Holy crap, I can't use this!'" McDonald says. "She's cutting up bodies, taking them on a train, going to work when there are bodies in the house, and acting like nothing happened. No defense attorney can work with a confession letter like this one if he's looking for a self-defense plea. So he buried it, and no one knew it even existed."
Winnie Ruth Judd knew. And she wanted that letter back in the worst way.
Ruth was high on Luminal when she killed her friends.
From the Coblio Collection, courtesy of Lane Bellamy
Perhaps the most damning proof that Ruth's April 6 letter is more than another crazed confession isn't what she wrote in that letter. It's in the amount of time she spent trying to get it back. In a half-dozen letters, written between June and November of 1953 and now on file at the Arizona Historical Society archives in Tucson, Ruth pleads with Howard G. Richardson's widow, Fern, to return the incriminating letter to her.
Ruth was preparing, after 20 years, for a new sanity hearing. Should she be found sane, Ruth knew, she'd be taken back to Florence Prison, after which she could appeal her case and, she hoped, be sent home with "time served." A 20-year-old letter in which she confessed to her attorney that she killed her friends and cut up one of their bodies, unassisted by another person, would mess up her plans for freedom.
"It is so important to have everything ready if my sanity hearing comes up this month," she explains in the last of the letters. In each, she implores Mrs. Richardson to bring the documents to her personally, or to allow her brother to come pick them up, explaining her intention to destroy anything in Richardson's file she "might not need." She's insistent that neither her new attorney nor anyone else see the letter. Despite six letters from Ruth and one from her new attorney requesting the return of the confession, Fern Richardson did not comply.
So, how did this confession letter finally resurface? According to the State Archive's processing notes, both the confession letter and the letters to Fern demanding its return were donated anonymously in 2001. They were processed into the archive's public collection in 2008 or 2009, according to Warbasse, who says he discovered the letter then. (Historical Society head librarian Linda Whitaker corrects Warbasse: The letter was, she recalls, added to the collection in 2002.) It's likely, because the confession letter and letters to Richardson's widow arrived together, that they were donated by the Richardson family. The use of the designation "Anonymous," according to Historical Society head librarian Linda Whitaker, suggests the donor didn't want to be known. That the nameless patron waited until Ruth's death to donate the correspondence also is likely.
Sunny Worel, great-niece of one of the victims, devoted her life to solving the crime.
I pulled Sammy into the bathroom. I cleaned up the floor I pulled in the trunk from the garage. It was now about 6:30 or 7 a.m.
. . . I tugged and pulled and finally got Anne from the bed into the trunk. Now it doesn't sound possible but this all took about two hours. I left for the office . . . I had pulled the trunk with Anne's body into the living room. But the trunk was unlocked. Sammy was on the bathroom floor all day Saturday . . . This all happened in the morning.
. . . I stayed in my office . . . until 4 p.m. I then took the bag home with me with the gun, knife, pajamas and dress. I fed my cat and went back to the 2929 N. 2nd Street house at around 6 p.m. I really had nothing definite in my mind. No plans made. In fact except for an irresistible impulse to get Anne I had no other plans. I entered the house through the bathroom window getting a chair from next door to climb in. I pulled the trunk back into the hall tried to lift Sammy into it, but that was utterly impossible, I couldn't possibly lift her, she was too heavy her body was stiff. I then got two cheap knives from the kitchen and severed her body into portions I could lift. I was hours doing this and then inch by inch pulling the trunk back into the living room.
Ruth's "only confession" answers decades-old questions. But an investigation into the letter itself also provides new revelations into this 83-year-old case. Like whether Ruth could have dismembered and packed bodies by herself. And why she was kept from taking the stand at her own trial. And why the letter itself was hidden away, all those years.
While Judd aficionados rarely agree on when Ruth shot her friends or why, most agree she could not have dismembered that body herself, nor packed those trunks without help. Experts on the case insist she was too small and frail to have lifted the dead weight of two bodies alone. No way, the murder jury announced, could a single woman with a bullet wedged into her left hand, courtesy of the scuffle with Samuelson, have completed these gruesome tasks by herself. They were so sure that Ruth had an accomplice, in fact, that they handed down the death penalty, certain that this harshest sentence would force her to squeal on her partner in crime.
Much was made, during her first trial in 1932, about Ruth's bandaged hand. In courtroom testimony and dozens of police interviews, witnesses were asked to recall when they saw Ruth's hand wrapped in a makeshift bandage, and which hand it was. Dr. Franklin of the Grunow Clinic, where Ruth and Anne worked, recalled that Ruth's right hand was bandaged early Saturday, while Mrs. Grace Mitchell, a patient there that morning, recalls that it was her left. Neither Richard Swartz nor Fred Homberger of Lightning Delivery, who came to move the murder trunks on Saturday night, remember any bandage at all, while five people who saw Ruth in four different locations late Sunday couldn't agree whether she was bandaged on the left, right, or at all.
Hiding in plain sight all these years is proof that Ruth was, in fact, injured in both hands -- slightly in her right hand and, more profoundly, in her left hand, in which a .25 caliber bullet was lodged.
While many have speculated about that left-hand wound, wondering whether it was self-inflicted to support Ruth's self-defense story, no previous narrative has proposed that the confusion about which hand was bandaged might stem from the fact that on Saturday she was seen with her right hand bandaged because of an injury sustained during the fight with Samuelson over the gun early that morning.
In a 42-page unpublished manuscript written by Ruth in 1941 while she was at the Arizona State Hospital, she describes how she and Samuelson struggled to gain control of the gun: "As the top of the gun slid back it caught the flesh of my third finger of my right hand, tearing a piece out and leaving black gun grease in the wound. (Colored pictures were taken of the wound in L.A. County Jail Hospital.)"
Likewise, in a 1969 television interview, Ruth re-enacts the fight with Sammy over the gun, saying, "Then, um, one bullet jammed, and caught me here [pointing between little finger and ring finger of her right hand] in the top of the gun. I had gun grease and a cut here [indicating same space between two fingers of right hand]."
The medical report and accompanying photographs taken at L.A. County Jail when Ruth was apprehended on October 23, 1931 both document the right-hand wound she described -- an injury surely painful enough to want bandaging but not serious enough to have prevented her from lifting dead bodies or, perhaps, dismembering one of them.
In the April 6 letter, Ruth describes how she accidentally discharged the gun while washing it midday on Sunday before leaving town. "Then I washed the gun in the lavoratory," she writes, "and while it was under water a bullet remaining in the gun went off and the lead mashed in a sheet which part of it I threw in the toilet the other went down the basin."
It's possible that this is when the injury to Ruth's left hand occurred, and not during the earlier fight for the gun with Sammy. A spent shell from the murder weapon was recovered from Ruth's Brill Street apartment; the other half may well have been the bullet removed from her hand a week later in Los Angeles.
With no major hand injury on Saturday, Ruth could have packed both bodies in the large steamer trunk at North Second Street, and could have dismembered Sammy's body, as well -- both of which occurred before the accidental, self-inflicted left-hand wound.
The baggage men after taking the trunk to the truck informed me it was too heavy to ship as baggage. I told them to take the trunk to 1130 Brill Street then, which they did . . . I also left the mattress from Anne's bed rolled up right there in front of these baggage men at 2nd Street, blood soaked in the living room.
. . . Sunday noon, I started getting ready to go to Los Angeles again. I transferred portions of Sammy's body to the smaller trunk and suitcase. Then I washed the gun in the lavoratory and while it was under water a bullet remaining in the gun went off and the lead mashed in a sheet which part of it I threw in the toilet the other went down the basin. From here on I think most everything has already been known.
What hasn't been known, for a very long time, is exactly why Ruth was kept from taking the stand at her murder trial in early 1932. Jerry Lewkowitz says Ruth told him that newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, who was paying her attorney fees in exchange for reporter exclusives for his news chain, asked her lawyers to keep her from the stand.
"She said Hearst thought it would sell more papers if she didn't get up on the stand," is how Lewkowitz remembers Ruth's explanation. But that doesn't wash, as Hearst would likely have sold more papers with stories about Ruth's trial testimony.
It appears that Winnie Ruth Judd was denied her day in court after being ratted on by her own husband.
In a yellowing 2,500-word decision to deny commutation of Ruth's death sentence, the pardon board on March 30, 1933 states, "Dr. Judd appeared before the board and among other things he said Mrs. Judd told him she dismembered the body of Miss Samuelson in a bathtub. He related in detail the manner in which the dismemberment was accomplished as told by Ruth. Dr. Judd stated she stuck to this story for several weeks, and then denied dismembering the body, both to him and to her lawyers. He further said the matter was considered at great length by him and her attorneys to present a self-defense plea, but that the reason they were afraid to do so was that Mrs. Judd under cross-examination might admit she killed Miss Leroi on the bed, and dismembered Miss Samuelson's body in the bathtub as related to him previously."
The next day, Ruth had Richardson file an appeal with the Arizona Superior Court, requesting a new trial based on her criminal trial attorney Paul Schenck's failure to claim self-defense on Ruth's behalf or to allow her to take the stand in her murder trial. Ruth had added Richardson, who later would be appointed Pinal County Court Judge, to her long list of attorneys to claim that Schenck's behavior lead to her death sentence.
In an affidavit attached to that appeal, Ruth claims she'd originally told Schenck that she killed the girls on Saturday morning, because Dr. Judd was present at the time of this admission and she was "trying to shield from her husband any knowledge of her illicit relations with John J. Halloran." Richardson wrote that Ruth later told Schenck the "true" time of the killings: "on or about the hour of eleven o'clock on Friday night." Ruth also stated, through Richardson, that she told the Saturday morning version of the story to shield Halloran out of gratitude for his "attempt to dispose of and conceal the bodies from the police."
After filing the appeal, Richardson asked Ruth to write him a confidential letter explaining the whole truth of the murders, so that he could build a new defense on her behalf, should the appeal to the higher court be approved.
Ruth wrote that letter to Richardson, on April 6 and April 8. Nearly everything in it contradicted the story Ruth had just told him -- and which he'd subsequently included in his appeal to the Superior Court -- the week before. It was the Schenck murder trial scenario, all over again: Ruth persuaded her new attorney to help her claim self-defense, then confided in him that she'd meant to kill Anne and had cut up Sammy herself.
After he read it, H.G. Richardson locked Ruth's "first and only confession" letter away in a safety deposit box, where it remained for the next 68 years.
Later that day, Ruth Judd tried to kill herself.
Winnie Ruth Judd did finally die, although not by her own hand after penning that infamous April 6 confession letter. She died in 1998 of natural causes at her home in Sunnyslope. She was 93. By then, she was known as Marian Lane, and most people who knew her true identity chose to believe her long-ago story about killing her friends in self defense.
"She was a little old lady, but she was still gorgeous," Jerry Lewkowitz says of Ruth's last days. "When I visited her in Sunnyslope, she was always beautifully dressed, with her hair coiffed. She said something once about how she was sorry she wasn't going to live long enough to see the day when people would finally stop remembering Winnie Ruth Judd."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.