The Chameleon comes home

Published May 19, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

He had been there for weeks, alone.

Buried in a hole 2-foot deep in the middle of nowhere.

Now they had come, with silver trowels, kneeling in the clay of a vineyard in central California. They reached into the earth and lifted his feet, his legs, his arms.

He wanted them to know how he got there, that it was her. In his last moments, he had promised: "You'll never get away with this."

Now they had come, soon they would know.

The lawyer's secret would be told.

And before it was over, when love and greed had beaten them all, the lawyer would have his revenge.

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In a quiet room at the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office, a technician pressed the man's fingers into an ink pad.

Now the body had a name: Larry McNabney.

He was a father of three, a wealthy lawyer known throughout Sacramento for his commercials depicting him like the Marlboro Man, riding a horse in the mountains, smiling beneath a cowboy hat.

"Call me," McNabney said, and people did.

He had been married five times, socialized with judges and powerful lawyers and was a rising star in national quarter horse competitions.

He had been reported missing in November, three months before migrant workers discovered his leg protruding from the soil in a field of grape vines.

Detectives drove to McNabney's home in a sumptuous, gated community south of Sacramento. They knocked on the door looking for his wife, Elisa.

There was no answer. She was gone, along with everything in the house.

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Elisa McNabney sped east in her red convertible Jaguar, her brown hair bleached blond. She had been dieting for weeks, shrinking her frame from a size 10 to a 2.

She had done this before, driven off a highway and into a new life. She had been Melissa Godwin. And Tammy Keelin and Shane Ivaroni. She had used at least 38 names.

It had always been easy for her to extend a hand and a smile; she had a gift for making people want to know her and help her. It wasn't the curve of her face or figure that attracted so many. It was her words.

She walked into people's lives, detected a void and knew how to fill it.

Over time, they usually saw who she really was. But that came later, after they had placed her somewhere securely inside, when it seemed too hard or complicated or dull to let her go.

Days before her husband's body was unearthed in California, she pulled off the highway in Destin, a Florida Panhandle town known for its sparkling beaches.

Wearing low rider jeans, she walked into a furniture store and greeted the owner, a 66-year-old man she had met days earlier at a golf tournament in Mississippi, his assistant recalls.

They'd had drinks, and she was at his side when he won $3,000 at the craps table. He thought she was good luck and told her to stop by if she ever came through Destin.

Now here she was.

He gave her a key to his condominium overlooking the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

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In California, detectives stood in a tidy brick home, talking to McNabney's 25-year-old son, Joe. He closed his eyes, trying not to cry.

He was used to his father slipping away without notice, but he had gotten worried as the days became weeks and the weeks became months. Still, he held onto hope: He kept his father's Christmas presents beneath the weight bench in his bedroom. But after McNabney didn't show up over the holidays, Joe reported him missing.

He knew his father had thought about leaving Elisa but felt he could not. Joe said his father had told him: "She knows things. She would tell."

Investigators learned more about the McNabneys. They heard about the couple's custom-made Jaguars, their prize-winning quarter horses, their expensive homes with views of jagged mountains.

They heard about the 52-year-old lawyer's courtroom presence, the deep voice that charmed juries. They knew he was restless, always trying something new, running marathons, buying a Harley, joining a "School of Enlightenment" in Washington to study ancient wisdom.

He slipped into dark moods and nursed his alcohol addiction under the flashing lights of Nevada casinos.

His former wives included a lawyer, a doctor, a hairdresser and a devout Christian. Two of them said he was violent and filed restraining orders. His second wife said he choked her and slammed her head against a car.

McNabney met his match in Elisa Redelsperger, who came looking for a job at his office in Las Vegas in 1995.

She ran his firm and proved to be a master at settling cases, bullying insurance companies to win large damages settlements for clients.

McNabney liked to tell friends that she was as ruthless as he was. He left his girlfriend of seven years and moved in with Elisa. His friends were not impressed.

"You would ask her where she went to high school, and pretty soon you'd be talking about skiing," said McNabney's friend, Reno lawyer Tom Mitchell. "Something wasn't right."

McNabney caught Elisa stealing money out of his wallet.

His law firm came under investigation by the Nevada State Bar, which determined that Elisa had embezzled more than $74,000 from client funds. The bar reprimanded McNabney.

He did not get rid of Elisa. He married her.

The couple moved to Sacramento and opened a new firm.

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The last time anyone had seen McNabney was at a horse show near Los Angeles.

He was among the top competitors in his amateur class and enjoyed the pageantry of walking his stallion, Justa Lotta Page, around the ring.

On Sept. 10, he arrived at the competition confused. He told friends he felt sick and returned to his hotel room.

The next morning, friends saw a Do Not Disturb sign on the McNabneys' door and, in the couple's pickup truck, a wheelchair and two spade shovels.

Elisa said she and her husband had fought and he had left the show. She started giving away his things, offering his expensive ostrich skin boots to another horse trainer. She was wearing his diamond horseshoe ring and Rolex.

"Larry is never coming back," friends recalled her saying. "Believe me, where he is, he'll never want these again."

In the following weeks, Elisa dyed her hair and lost 30 pounds. She leased a new Jaguar and a red BMW for her secretary and best friend, Sarah Dutra, a college art major who painted elaborate surrealist works.

When detectives started asking about McNabney, his horse trainer, Debbie Kail, told them about a conversation she had with Elisa before he disappeared. They were grooming horses in a barn when she asked: "Do you think acepromazine could kill someone?"

"Heck yeah," Kail replied. "It can tranquilize a 1,500-pound horse. Imagine what it would do to a human."

Detective Javier Ramos took the name of the horse tranquilizer to a forensic pathologist, who had been unable to determine what killed McNabney.

She found a significant amount of another horse tranquilizer, xylazine, in his system. But something still puzzled her. Nobody had seen McNabney since September, but she believed his body had not been buried until December or January. Where had he been all that time?

She wondered if he had been held captive, but he was not emaciated and had no restraint marks.

She wondered if he had been frozen, but his body would have decomposed rapidly when it thawed, and he was well preserved.

She offered detectives another idea: "Refrigeration?"

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In Florida, Shane moved into the furniture store owner's condo with her 17-year-old daughter and their pet albino rat, Angel.

Saying she was a wine connoisseur, she found work at an upscale steakhouse. At the restaurant, she met a lawyer who promptly offered her a job. She started the next day.

Around the same time, California detectives issued a warrant for Elisa McNabney in the murder of her husband. They still did not know her real name.

But they were getting closer.

They discovered a name she used in Las Vegas before meeting McNabney: Elizabeth Barasch.

Detectives found the real Elizabeth Barasch in West Palm Beach. They showed her a picture of Elisa. "That's Laren Sims," Barasch told them.

Barasch said they had done time together at Jefferson Correctional Institution near Tallahassee in 1991 and 1992. Barasch was in for trafficking cocaine. Sims spent six months there for trafficking in stolen property, grand theft and illegal possession of a credit card.

Detectives talked to Sims' parents, Jesse and Jackie, in Brooksville, who said they had not heard from their daughter since 1993.

For years they had worried about what had become of the second of their four children. They couldn't understand how things had gone so wrong with a child who had been so gentle growing up.

In school she was a cheerleader and a model. She got good grades.

"All the guys were in love with her," said Clorinda Sadler, a classmate at Hernando High.

Weekends she hung out at Louie's Bowling Alley or sipped beer under the power lines east of Brooksville. She ran with the popular crowd that spent Saturday afternoons on the beach at Pine Island.

She had an IQ of 140, signifying genius intellect, but dropped out of school before graduating.

She married at 18, carrying pink roses for the ceremony at her parents' home. By 20, she was divorced and had children with two men.

"Laren's life seemed to change, and she began to make some wrong choices," her mother said.

She lived with her family in Brooksville, where her father ran Sims Machine & Controls. She worked at an insurance agency owned by a family friend, Regina Martin.

Men were always dropping by. "She would bat her eyes like in the cartoons and it was all over as far as they were concerned," Martin said. "She could get any man in this world to do anything for her."

She started stealing shortly after her divorce.

She took $1,000 in ceramic clowns and $50 worth of feather plumes from a trailer she rented in Hernando County. She was arrested for stealing a $4.39 L'Oreal Hair Color kit from a Woolworth's in Tampa.

At 25, she went to prison. From her cell, she wrote to a clerk at the Hernando County Courthouse:

"Anyone who goes to prison and does not learn their lesson deserves to go back. I am here my first time. I pray it is my last. I have learned."

Released, she violated probation. A judge ordered that she wear an ankle monitor.

She illegally used a credit card, was rearrested and released on bail. She cut off her monitor, packed her daughter into the car and headed west, to Las Vegas.

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In Destin, the man who loaned Shane his high-rise condo found charges on his credit card, $1,000 worth, from the Gap, Winn-Dixie and other stores.

He kicked her out, changed his locks and cautioned the law firm where she worked about trusting her. The lawyers found that she had provided a phony Social Security number and reported her tag number to the police.

That night, she stayed with a friend, Robert Murphy Jr. The next morning, his pickup, $650 and Shane were missing. She had left her Jaguar in his driveway.

A few days later, police found Sims' 17-year-old daughter, Haylei, staying with friends in Fort Walton Beach near Destin.

She told them the missing truck was in the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie. She said she was afraid her mother was going to kill herself. Deputies found the truck and a woman walking on the beach nearby.

"I'm the one you're looking for," she told them.

That same day, across the country in Reno, Larry McNabney was buried again, this time in a cemetery.

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In the pickup truck, deputies found a letter Sims had written to her daughter.

Dear Haylei,

I am so sorry for dragging you through the life I took you through. You have always loved me no matter what and that means everything to me. Since telling you the real truth about everything last night, I hope you can make your life good.

Don't steal and don't lie. I did both for as long as I can remember and look what I did to myself...

... I don't deserve to live and I can't live with the things I have done. I wish Sarah and I could go back and change the decisions we made, but it's too late ...

I can't explain my actions with Larry. I could not figure a way out. The drugs, the alcohol, the prostitutes, the trust account, things I told you about, he just couldn't bring himself out of the darkness...

... I have to end my life because I have done such a bad job with it. By ending my life, I am washing you clean...

I love you my princess. You are the most deserved person of all things good.

Go to your new life with my blessing and my deepest hope for health and happiness!

I will always be in your heart!


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It was close to midnight when Sims took her seat in a small interview room at the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office. Her hair was dyed black and cropped above her shoulders.

She told her story.

She poisoned her husband at the horse show in Los Angeles. She said her best friend, 21-year-old Sarah Dutra, helped her. They gave him horse tranquilizer, but he would not die.

Dutra rented a wheelchair and bought two spade shovels. They wheeled McNabney out of the hotel and placed him in the pickup truck.

They drove to Yosemite National Park. Dutra dug a hole, but McNabney was still breathing. They could not bring themselves to bury him alive, so they drove him home to Woodbridge, 40 miles south of Sacramento.

On the way, McNabney thrashed in the back seat. Disoriented from the tranquilizer, he mumbled incoherent childhood memories. He also warned the women: "You'll never get away with this."

Home in Woodbridge, McNabney fell asleep on the floor upstairs.

The next morning, he was dead.

She and Dutra wrapped his body in a sheet and crammed him into a refrigerator in the garage. Rigor mortis set in, and his stiffening body forced the door open.

The women wrapped the refrigerator in duct tape to keep it shut.

Three months later, they put McNabney in the trunk and drove to a rodeo in Las Vegas. They let the valet park the car at the hotel.

On the way home, they stopped in the desert and tried to dig a grave, but the earth was too hard. They returned to Woodbridge, and Elisa drove off alone. She pulled onto a dirt road leading to a vineyard. It was dark and rain was falling.

She dug a shallow grave and rolled her husband in. She cut off his clothes and covered him with dirt. She said she picked a vineyard because he always loved wine.

She placed his clothes in plastic bags, drove home and cleaned the car. She scattered the clothes in several dumpsters.

A month later, she skipped town in the Jaguar.

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After her confession, Elisa McNabney was taken to the Hernando County Jail, where people know her by her real name, Laren Sims.

She visited with her family, including her daughter and the son she had not seen in 9 years. Cole is 16 now, and lives with his father in Brooksville. Haylei is 17, and lives with Sims' parents in Brooksville.

She told her attorney that she killed her husband because he beat her. She said she could not report him because of the warrants for her arrest from when she fled Florida.

At night, she sat alone in a 9 by 11 cell with a metal frame bed, a vinyl-covered mattress and a stainless steel toilet. She ripped her pillowcase and meticulously braided a long, thin rope.

She slipped the rope through a metal grate in the ceiling and placed the other side around her neck. She dangled in the air.

Laren Sims died before dawn on Easter morning. She was 36.

Deputies found a letter in her cell, torn into quarters and placed in a plastic bag. It was addressed to her attorney, Tom Hogan Jr. of Brooksville.

She asked him to sue the Hernando County Jail for allowing her to kill herself. It would be her last gift to her children.

"My actions now will allow them to move into the future without this heavy burden. They won't have to watch my trial on Court TV," she wrote.

"I have tried to dig deep inside myself and it isn't working. There is nothing left. I spent so many years trying to be strong and now I just feel empty."

HIGH SCHOOL CHEERLEADER: Laren Sims had an IQ of 140. "She had a beautiful smile that lit up her whole face," said her mother, Jackie Sims.

ELISA MCNABNEY: Sims borrowed other names over her life: Elizabeth Barasch, Melissa Godwin, Tammy Keelin, Shane Ivaroni.

APOLOGETIC DAUGHTER: Sims was grateful her family visited her in jail. "I am not good, like they are. . . . I have always been a disappointment to them."

Larry McNabney's family and friends put together this remembrance to run in national quarter horse magazines. "I never believed Larry would live into his 50s, as hard as he stomped on the dirt," said Reno lawyer Fred Atcheson.

Detective Javier Ramos believes Sims murdered her husband for money. "She could have walked away. She'd done it before." When he flew to Florida to interview her, he did not find the beautiful, alluring woman he had heard so much about. "She looked haggard, tired, like a completely different person."

Detectives kneeled between the brown, knotted vines of this field northeast of Stockton, in central California, to extract the body of Larry McNabney. "The vineyard was eerie," Detective Javier Ramos said. "It looked desolate and barren."

Two of Larry McNabney's three grown children: Tavia Williams, 33, remembers her father as "brilliant, powerful, mesmerizing." Joe McNabney, 25, dropped out of paramedic school after his father's body was found.

Awaiting trial, Sarah Dutra is charged with murdering McNabney for financial gain. Her attorney, Kevin Clymo, blames Elisa: "This is a classic instance of evil wrapping around a sweet, young little baby."

Sarah Dutra, 21, left, was an art major at California State University in Sacramento when she answered a newspaper ad for a secretarial position at the McNabneys' law firm in 2000. She and Elisa became close friends.

In her final days, Laren Sims wrote that she regretted killing her husband: "I think we both know it doesn't matter what kind of man Larry was, we murdered him. Of course I should spend the rest of my life in prison. Sarah should, too. I wish I could change what happened, but I can't." Instead, she used this cord to hang herself.

Flowers mark Laren Sims' grave. More than 100 people attended her funeral on April 3. Sims' attorney said no one should judge her or dwell on the "could-have-beens."

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