Pathologist testifies head injury, not broken neck, killed 19-year-old bride
Happy and beautiful. That was how Karen Mezera described her older sister Noreen Kumeta on Aug. 18, 1973, the day Noreen married Donnie Rudd, a patent attorney whom she met when both worked at Quaker Oats in Barrington.
Less than a month later, 19-year-old Noreen Kumeta was dead after their car crashed near Bateman and Dundee roads in Barrington Township. For more than 40 years, Mezera and her family believed an accident claimed the life of the newlywed, who was buried in her wedding dress.
In 2015, after her body was exhumed during an investigation into an unsolved 1991 Arlington Heights slaying, authorities classified Kumeta's death a homicide and charged Rudd, now 76, with murder, claiming he killed his wife for $120,000 in life insurance payments.
Rudd pleaded not guilty. His trial continued Wednesday in Rolling Meadows with testimony from DuPage County forensic pathologist Dr. Hilary McElligott, who was hired by Kane County in 2013 to conduct an autopsy on Kumeta's remains.
McElligott contradicted the findings of an emergency room physician at Sherman Hospital in Elgin, where Kumeta was pronounced dead on arrival after the 1973 crash. The now retired Dr. Jae Han listed spinal fracture as Kumeta's cause of death.
According to McElligott, Kumeta died from blows to her skull that caused lacerations, fractures and bleeding on both sides of her head. McElligott testified she found no evidence of a spinal injury and no other injuries to the body.
She also testified Kumeta's injuries were inconsistent with being thrown from a car in a low-speed accident or with hitting one's head on a rock, as Rudd initially claimed had happened. He told a Barrington Hills officer at the scene of the crash that another vehicle crossed into their lane on Sept. 14, 1973, and forced them off the road.
No autopsy was performed and a Kane County coroner's jury subsequently ruled her death accidental. On Wednesday, Arlington Heights police Cmdr. Richard Sperando testified Rudd gave him a different account of the accident.
Arlington Heights police began looking into Kumeta's death in 2012 as part of their investigation into the 1991 unsolved murder of interior designer and former Rudd client Loretta Tabak-Bodtke, a client of Rudd who was found shot to death in her Arlington Heights townhouse.
Rudd remains a suspect in Tabak-Bodtke's murder but has not been charged.
Sperando testified police received permission from a Cook County judge to exhume Kumeta's body in February 2013. In December 2015, he, several other officers and prosecutors flew to Sugar Land, Texas, where Rudd was living.
Rudd recalled the 1973 accident in a videotaped interview, which jurors watched Wednesday. In it, Rudd is heard telling Sperando he swerved and hit something after a car approached them head-on.
"When I came to, she (Kumeta) was out. I reached over and held her," Rudd said in the interview. He did not tell Sperando that Kumeta was thrown from the car.
Also on Wednesday, defense attorney Timothy Grace made a motion for a mistrial after testimony from Kane County Coroner Rob Russell, who said Kumeta has two death certificates on file, per Illinois law. One lists her death as accidental, the other lists her death as a homicide. Grace requested a mistrial after prosecutor Maria McCarthy referenced former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson, who was convicted of killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, whose death was also initially classified as accidental.
Calling the reference "highly prejudicial," Judge Marc Martin said he will instruct jurors to disregard the reference.
Testimony continues Thursday in Rolling Meadows.