Ruthless: A Long-Lost Confession Letter May Finally Tell the Real Story of Winnie Ruth Judd

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?

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

Latest Stories