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Crime News

In Twisted Love Triangle, Shawna Nelson Shot Her Lover’s Wife In The Head And Tried To Pin It On Her Husband

The perpetrator and victim were both Denver-area moms. 

By Benjamin H. Smith
Love Triangles That Turned Violent

Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and infamous murders throughout history.

Shawna Louise Buntz Nelson (pictured, left) was always looking for love. She found it on the job, working as a 911 dispatcher, and falling in love with Sheriff’s deputy Ken Nelson. They would marry and have two children. But it wasn’t enough.

Soon she fell in love with another cop, Ignacio Garraus, and later became pregnant with his child. When he said he didn’t want to divorce his wife Heather, Shawna took matters into her own hands, shooting her dead. Then she tried to put the blame on another alleged lover.

Shawna Buntz was born in 1973 and raised in Greeley, Colorado. Her mother said she couldn’t take care of a child, and gave baby Shawna to her sister to raise. “She was biologically my aunt’s child and my mom and dad adopted her,” her sister Debbie Smith told “Snapped,” which airs on Oxygen. The family kept it a secret until she graduated from high school in 1990. When they told her, she was devastated. Friend Janet Rotello told “Snapped,” “She was upset that it was kept from her and just the fact that she was lied to for so long.”

In 1992, Shawna began working as a 911 dispatcher in Weld County, Colorado, northeast of Denver. There, she met affable Sheriff’s deputy Ken Nelson. They started dating in 1995 and were married a year later. Two children soon followed.

Shawna was now a mother of two, and kept her job as a 911 dispatcher. She liked the excitement of the work, the extra income and she had a lot of friends on the job. One of them was a young Sheriff’s deputy named Michelle Moore (pictured, right). The two women became close. Michelle would babysit the Nelson kids and Shawna and Michelle liked to go out for drinks with their co-workers from the Weld County law enforcement and emergency services community.

In 2004, Weld County consolidated its 911 operations with the town of Greeley. She soon met an outgoing detective with the Greeley Police Department named Ignacio Garraus. His friends called him “Ig.” In an interview with NBC’s “Dateline”, Garraus said he and Shawna kept running into each other around town. “We started talking about some issues. She was having some problems with her husband. I was having some problems with [wife] Heather,” Garraus said. “We started confiding in each other. And one night it became intimate.”

The affair soon became an open secret amongst their co-workers—and in 2005, Ken Nelson caught on.

He asked for a divorce.

Shawna and the kids moved into an apartment. Her free time was spent with her best friend Michelle and she continued her affair with Ignacio Garraus. Ignacio, however, had no plans to leave his wife and did his best to keep the affair a secret. From the outside he appeared to be a loving, doting husband, bringing his wife flowers at work, but at night meeting up with Shawna for sex.

In July 2005, Shawna discovered she was pregnant with Ignacio’s baby, and he asked her to get an abortion. She refused. Instead she returned to Ken Nelson and tried to reconcile. Ken agreed to give their marriage a second chance and even said he wanted to adopt Ignacio’s child and raise it as his own. A boy, Christian, was born in March 2006 and Ignacio relinquished his parental rights at a court hearing that December.

On the evening of January 23rd, 2007, Heather Garraus was leaving her job at the Colorado State Employees Credit Union, where she worked as a supervisor. She was in the parking lot talking with her friends and co-workers when a figure in a Grim Reaper mask and a black robe emerged from the darkness with a gun.

The gunperson told Heather to get on her knees.

As prosecutor Cliff Riedel told “Snapped,” the assailant then said, “‘You’ve ruined my life,’” and shot Heather twice in the head. She died from her wounds 30 minutes later at the age of 37, leaving behind a 9-year-old daughter, Victoria.   

Police rushed to the scene after receiving a 911 call saying that a police officer’s wife had been shot. When they arrived, witnesses said they knew exactly who killed Heather Garraus. “My mind immediately thought Shawna. She was the only person that could have possibly done or had the motive to do anything,” Heather’s friend and co-worker Carole Rose told “Snapped.” They said Ignacio had recently told Heather he was having an affair. After having a heart to heart, they agreed to try and make their marriage work, as long as he immediately ended things with Shawna. “Ignacio Garraus called (Shawna) in his wife’s presence and broke off their relationship,” says Prosecutor Greg Lammons. Two days later, he signed over complete custody of his son. Shawna was enraged.

Soon after the break up, Shawna Nelson began sending threatening messages to the Garrauses. “She’d sent communications to Ignacio Garraus, ‘You broke my heart, you f***ed me, be prepared,” Riedel told “Snapped.” She also left threatening voicemail messages for Heather, but according to her co-workers, Heather didn’t take them seriously.

A call soon went out from the Weld County dispatch center that police were looking for Shawna Nelson. Her husband, Ken Nelson, was in a squad room briefing when it was announced his wife was a murder suspect. He and his partner rushed to the Nelson’s house. As they got close to home, Ken saw Shawna behind the wheel of his personal truck driving up the street. He jumped out of the car and blocked her off. Cliff Riedel told “Snapped,” “Ken Nelson started yelling at her, ‘Get out of the vehicle! What have you done?’” After taking her into custody, Greeley police found a Grim Reaper mask underneath the seat in Nelson’s truck.

When investigators questioned Shawna, she denied any knowledge of Heather Garraus’ death. She said she had taken Ken’s truck to the liquor store to buy some wine. Following her interrogation, she was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Police then began interviewing her friends and associates, most of whom worked for either the Greeley Police Department or the Weld County Sheriff's Office. Among those interviewed was Shawna’s best friend, Michelle Moore. She claimed she didn’t know anything about the shooting and that Shawna had no animosity towards Heather Garraus. Detectives didn’t believe her.  

In November 2007, on the eve of Shawna Nelson’s murder trial, police arrested Michelle Moore and charged her with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and criminal attempt to commit first-degree murder. Moore almost immediately agreed to tell police everything she knew. In court papers cited by The Denver Post, Moore told police about “a discussion with Shawna Nelson, where they spoke about leaving ‘misleading’ evidence at the scene, which would contain someone else’s DNA.”  Following these developments, Nelson’s trial was pushed back to the start of the new year.

Shawna Nelson’s trial began on February 21st, 2008, and in its opening statement, the prosecution let it be known they had plenty of evidence tying Shawna to the crime. According to ABC affiliate Denver 7, they would ultimately put over 40 witnesses on the stand and introduce 120 exhibits.

Most damning was the testimony of former BFF Michelle Moore, who helped coach her on how to get away with murder and pin it on someone else.

It would later be surmised that Shawna was planning to frame her husband Ken for Heather Garraus’s murder. At the time of her arrest, she was driving his truck, wearing various clothing items that belonged to him, as well as wearing men’s shoes, which she left at the scene. Ken Nelson would later tell The Denver Post he believed his wife was trying to set him up, saying, “Why else would she be wearing my underwear, wearing my socks, my baseball cap, and drive my truck that she hated? Is there any other explanation for that? I can’t think of one.”

When Shawna Nelson finally took the stand in her own defense, she alleged her own bombshell. She said she and Michelle Moore were lovers.  She said Michelle’s testimony was revenge after Shawna broke up with her. "I was driving Michelle home and told her that I could no longer have a sexual relationship with her,” she told a shocked jury. “I still loved her and wanted to be friends but that I couldn't keep lying to Ken," Nelson said. She claimed Moore was “very upset." According to The Greeley Tribune, Moore testified they had never had a sexual relationship. As for her involvement in the murder of Heather Garraus, Shawn Nelson maintained she had nothing to do with it.

On March 3, 2008, after a day of deliberations, the jury announced they had reached a verdict and found Shawna Nelson guilty of murder in the first degree. She was almost immediately given the maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. “When they read the verdict she just sat, you know, stone cold sober. Didn’t flinch. No emotion, no nothing,” Carole Rose told “Snapped.”

For her part in the murder of Heather Garraus, Michelle Moore was sentenced to 9 years in jail and three years mandatory parole in March 2008, according to The Denver Post. Also according to The Denver Post, “Moore was originally charged with plotting to commit murder but later agreed to a lesser charge of accessory to a crime in exchange for her testimony against Shawna Nelson.”

Moore has since been released.

Ken Nelson would later divorce Shawna and is raising their three children out of state. Ignacio Garrous resigned from the Greeley Police Department and moved to Florida.

Following her conviction, Shawna Nelson told The Denver Post, “Somebody did a really good job of framing me.” She would later appeal her conviction, blaming it on her court-appointed attorney, but her appeal was denied by a Weld District Court judge, according to The Greeley Tribune.  Now 46, she is currently serving out her life sentence at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility.

[Photos: The Associated Press]