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The Phoenix Theatre Company takes on Arizona's infamous 'Trunk Murderess'

If you’ve lived in Phoenix long enough, you’ve probably heard at least something about Winnie Ruth Judd. In 1931, she was a young woman involved with a married man and, possibly acting out of romantic jealousy, she killed her two friends. Then she hopped a train for Los Angeles with the bodies packed into trunks — one body was dismembered. Judd was tried and found guilty, but was declared mentally incompetent and spent decades in what was then called the State Asylum for the Insane, making several escapes over the years.

The infamous “Trunk Murderess” case has inspired multiple true-crime accounts, a mystery novel and even a feature-length film that acts out the story with puppets. Now, the Phoenix Theatre Company is premiering a new stage adaptation of Judd’s story,  which opens Wednesday. And the new play, “The Truth About Winnie Ruth Judd,” doesn’t start with the affair, or the murders, or the asylum. It starts with a radio broadcast.

“It’s another beautiful day in Arizona! Leave us all enjoy it! This is Jack Williams speaking to you from the studios of KOY Radio,” actor Louis Farber calls out as the show begins.

“It was the beginning of electronic media, instant information, and the chance, in this story, to exploit a tragedy,” said Ben Tyler, who co-wrote the new play.

Tyler said part of the reason Judd’s story became such an urban legend is that it was sensationalized from day one on the new media platform of radio. Announcer Jack Williams with Phoenix’s KOY Radio got transcripts of Judd’s trial and convinced the station to have voice-actors play it out on-air.

Tyler said the inspiration for the play came when he and co-writer Cathy Dresbach learned about those broadcasts and how they became a runaway hit with audiences.

“It was murder and sex, I mean, that’s always going to get people’s interest,” Tyler said. “People went nuts for it. People were reading about it in the newspapers, but to hear a recreation of the court hearing from that day — it just blew people’s minds.”

Tyler and Dresbach’s take on the well-known Phoenix case jumps back and forth from scenes of Judd’s life to the radio reenactment of her trial. 

The playwrights  presented a reading of "The Truth About Winnie Ruth Judd" during the Phoenix Theatre Company's Festival of New American Theatre in 2020, but this will be the first full production of the show. They said they’re thrilled the show will premiere at the Phoenix Theatre Company's Judith Hardes Theatre, just over a mile from where the murders took place and a few blocks from where KOY's radio station once stood.

The playwrights both grew up in Arizona, hearing whispers about Judd from their parents amid news coverage of her escape attempts and eventual parole. Dresbach said when they started writing the script, they were able to take advantage of local resources, even tracking down the son of one of Judd’s attorneys.

“He saved everything from those days and we got boxes full of stuff — the trial transcript, photographs, letters, autopsy photos,” Dresbach said.

Dresbach said she and Tyler pulled some dialogue directly from those materials.

Director Matthew Wiener said those real courtroom details lend some comedic moments to the show.

“Forensic science in the 1930s was not what it is today, and there were a lot of things that were in the trial that we, today, would go, ‘Oh my God, what were they thinking?’” Wiener said.

It’s still a grisly story, said Megan Holcomb, who plays Judd.

“Murder and cutting up bodies — those aren’t things that a good person does,” Holcomb said.

But Holcomb said she appreciates that the script weaves together multiple characters’ perspectives, and gives the audience a chance to consider Judd as more than just the “Trunk Murderess.”

“She was a sympathetic human being who did get caught up in some things and then, unfortunately, the justice system did not treat her very well,” Holcomb said.

Judd was found guilty, but some have questioned whether she acted in self-defense, whether she might have had an accomplice, or whether her trial with an all-male jury and over-the-top tabloid coverage was fair.

“I feel she was exploited,” Dresbach said. “We do present a couple of different theories of the crime within the play.”

But Dresbach said the goal of the show is not to solve any mysteries.

“I remember pulling the trigger, but that’s not the whole story, as for the rest, well, the truth is a tricky thing to pin down,” the character Judd says in the play.

The play is called “The Truth About Winnie Ruth Judd,” but Tyler said that’s meant with a hint of irony.

“No one will ever know the full truth about Winnie Ruth Judd," Tyler said. "She took so much information to the grave with her."

What she left behind was a fascinating, if dark, story. The playwrights hope, even after more than 90 years of retellings, that local legend will once again have audiences hooked.

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Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent reporting on a variety of issues, including public health and climate change.