Editor's note: Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and famous murders throughout history.
When police pulled Larry McNabney’s dead body out of its shallow grave in California’s wine country on February 5, 2002, they worried they might also find the body of Elisa, his wife of six years. He hadn’t been seen since falling ill at a horse show the previous September, and she had been missing since early January.
However, once authorities learned she had sold off all his assets and was last seen fleeing town in a brand new luxury automobile, Elisa became the prime suspect in her husband’s murder. The only problem with catching her? Elisa McNabney didn’t exist. The name was an alias used by a con artist with a rap sheet 113 pages long.
Before she was the spouse of a successful personal injury attorney and the object of a nationwide manhunt, she was Laren Renee Sims, born in Brooksville, Florida, in 1967, the second of four children in a well-to-do family. Despite possessing a high IQ of 140 and being at the top of her class academically, she dropped out of high school before graduation. She became Laren Jordan after marrying at the age of 18, and within a couple years she had two children by two different men.
"Laren's life seemed to change, and she began to make some wrong choices," her mother told the St. Petersburg Times in 2002.
Laren began stealing and scamming people soon after divorcing her first husband.
Private investigator David R. Spender told Oxygen’s "Snapped," “She used her womanly ways to acquire credit cards, checkbooks and in some cases would marry the male that she was seeing to use those cards.”
She used at least 38 aliases over the years, including Melissa Godwin, Tammy Keelin and Elizabeth Barasch.
“I could go on for literally hours telling the other names that she's used,” said Spencer. She had already been married three times and done several stints in jail by the time she cut off an ankle monitor and fled to Las Vegas, Nevada, in the early '90s.
Larry McNabney was well-known in Las Vegas. Maybe it was the high-profile cases he took on, or maybe it was the television commercials for his law practice, where he rode a horse and wore a cowboy hat, leading some to call him “The Marlboro Man,” after the rugged male model of a million cigarette ads. He was also not without his own demons.
"He has risen several times from falls with alcohol,” Nevada District Judge Peter Breen told The San Francisco Chronicle at the time of his death. “He always came back stronger."
McNabney had been married four times, and according to the St. Petersburg Times, two of his exes had filed restraining orders against him.
In 1995, Laren, now going by the name Elisa Redelsperger, walked into Larry McNabney’s Las Vegas law office and demanded a job. Whether it was her gumption or her good looks, he hired her on the spot as an office manager.
McNabney’s daughter Tavia Williams told "Snapped" her father raved about his new hire, saying, “Tavia, you will be so impressed with her. She's brilliant. She's so bright and handles things. It's a load off my back.”
The 46-year-old McNabney was smitten with the pretty 29-year-old, and they soon began dating. He introduced her to fine wines, and she introduced him to quarter horse shows, eventually convincing him to buy a stable of horses, which he began riding in competitions.
McNabney‘s family and friends, however, didn’t take to his new girlfriend.
“My relationship greatly changed with my dad,” said Tavia Williams. “She put a wedge between us. I wasn't allowed to call him, wasn't allowed to see him.”
Friends also said “Elisa” offered sketchy details of her past.
"You would ask her where she went to high school, and pretty soon you'd be talking about skiing," Reno lawyer Tom Mitchell told the St. Petersburg Times. "Something wasn't right."
Something definitely wasn’t right in December 1995 when an audit of McNabney’s books revealed tens of thousands of dollars had disappeared from a trust account he had set up for one of his clients. As a result, the Nevada Bar Association revoked Larry’s license, meaning he could no longer practice law in the state, and he had to pay the money back out of his own pocket. In fact, it had been Elisa who had stolen the money, but Larry McNabney didn’t seem to care.
Shortly after the incident, the couple married and moved to Sacramento, California. Under the sunny skies of Northern California, Larry and Elisa indulged themselves in wine, horse shows and shopping. McNabney opened a new law practice and was soon so busy he hired a part-time legal secretary. Her name was Sarah Dutra, she was 21 years old and studied art at California State University.
Dutra and Elisa became fast friends, and she began accompanying the McNabneys to horse shows, where the two women would go on shopping sprees with Larry picking up the bill.
“They spent a lot of money on Gucci clothing. I would say that they spent a minimum of $200 to $500 per pair of shoes,” said Ginger Miller, who also worked in McNabney’s office. “They dressed a lot alike most of the time and so they would buy two of everything.”
On September 10, 2001, the McNabneys and Dutra were at a quarter horse show in Los Angeles when Larry collapsed. The next day, witnesses saw Elisa and Dutra pushing Larry in a wheelchair. That was the last time anyone saw McNabney alive.
Back home in Sacramento, Elisa said Larry was too sick to see any visitors, including his own children. Though Larry was nowhere to be found, his law office stayed open, with Elisa negotiating with lawyers and spending the settlement money that came in from personal injury clients. She even hired two new employees: Ginger Miller and Elisa’s 17-year-old daughter, Haylei Jordan. None of Elisa's friends even knew Haylei existed until she started working in McNabney’s practice.
A month after Larry McNabney had collapsed and disappeared from the public eye, Elisa began telling people he had moved away and filed for divorce. According to ABC News, she gave varying accounts of where he went, saying he was on vacation in Puerto Rico, or in rehab in Florida or had joined a religious sect in Washington state. Larry’s children immediately sensed something was wrong.
“What was strange to us was the length of time that she was saying dad was gone, that he was in places he wouldn't have been,” his daughter Tavia told "Snapped." “She said dad didn't come home. He didn't want to celebrate his birthday and things snowballed.”
Larry’s children eventually hired a private investigator to help track down their father, but to no avail.
Elisa McNabney started selling off Larry’s assets and giving away his personal belongings that winter. By the time police began asking questions about her husband’s disappearance, she had already hit the road. She was last seen on January 11, 2002, driving out of town in a brand new red Jaguar. She bought Sarah Dutra a matching red BMW as a going away present.
Three and a half weeks later, on February 5, workers at a San Joaquin vineyard saw an leg sticking out of the ground and called police. It was the badly decomposed body of Larry McNabney.
An autopsy revealed that Larry McNabney had been dead for months. The cause of death was a fatal overdose of horse tranquilizers. As police began interviewing acquaintances of the McNabneys, they recalled ominous conversations with Elisa.
Evan Rees, who knew the couple from the horse show circuit, told "Snapped" on Oxygen: “We were at a horse show in Susanville, California and Elisa said ‘Evan can I ask you something, can you kill with horse tranquilizers?’ I said ‘Kill a horse?,’ and she said, ‘No, a person.’”
Police searched their databases for information on Elisa McNabney, but found nothing. There was no driver’s license, no social security number, no trace of anyone with that name ever existing. When they searched McNabney’s law offices, they found them cleaned out.
Finally, in a horse trailer filled with Elisa’s belongings, they found an old legal file that contained the name Lauren Renee Sims Jordan. When they ran it through the FBI’s computers, it came back with a rap sheet 113-pages long. Elisa was Laren. The San Joaquin Sheriff's office issued a murder warrant for her arrest and a $10,000 reward was offered for information leading to her capture.
Now going by the name Shane Ivaroni, Laren settled in the town of Destin, along the Florida panhandle, and was up to her usual tricks. She had brought her daughter Haylei with her and already landed two jobs while working local men for petty scams. In March 18, 2002, police finally caught up with her, and she was held without bail. After two weeks in custody, with her extradition to California looming, she penned a three-page letter, confessing to the murder on Larry McNabney with the aid of Sarah Dutra.
In a letter to her daughter at the time of her arrest, quoted by the St. Petersburg Times, Laren herself said she killed Larry because “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.”
Ginger Miller told "Snapped," “She was tired of being married to an old man and when she made love to him, it made her skin crawl.”
In her confession to police, Laren said she and Sarah had put the high power horse tranquilizer in Larry’s drink on the morning of the Los Angeles horse show. After bringing him back to the hotel following his collapse, they injected him with more. They had planned to bury him in the desert on the way back to Sacramento, but he was still alive when they got there. He eventually died at home.
They then put his dead body in a refrigerator in the McNabney's garage and sealed it shut with duct tape. At the end of December 2001, Laren buried him at the vineyard, a nod to his love of wine.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, after penning her confession, Laren visited with her family, including her 16-year-old son Cole, whom she hadn’t seen in nine years. Then on March 31, 2002, she ripped strips of cloth from her pillowcase, braiding them into a rope, which she fastened to an air duct in the ceiling of her jail cell and hung herself. Always the con artist, even in death, she left behind a suicide note instructing her lawyer to sue the Hernando County Jail for not preventing her suicide, with any monies going to her children.
"My actions now will allow them to move into the future without this heavy burden,” she wrote. “They won't have to watch my trial on Court TV."
[Photos: San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office]
Sarah Dutra went on trial for her part in the murder of Larry McNabney in early 2003. She claimed the older woman she knew as Elisa McNabney manipulated her into becoming an accessory to the crime.
However, the Lodi News-Sentinel reported at the time that Haylei Jordan testified against her in court, saying, "Sarah never acted as if she was afraid of my mother. Never."
According to the Lodi News-Sentinel, Dutra was “initially charged with capital murder, but a jury ultimately convicted her of voluntary manslaughter and being an accessory to murder.” She received the maximum sentence of 11 years in prison and was released on August 26, 2011 at the age of 31.
[Photo: San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office]