April 17, 2002 -- Larry McNabney was a successful attorney, with an attractive younger wife, three grown children, and a growing national reputation in his new hobby, quarter horse showing.
So when the 52-year-old disappeared last fall, his friends and family thought it was strange. For the next four months, his wife Elisa gave his family and colleagues varying accounts of where he was: that he was vacationing in Puerto Rico, or partying in Las Vegas, or in a rehab center in Florida or Washington — even that he had joined a cult.
In November, suspicious employees at McNabney's Sacramento law practice contacted police. They tried to locate his wife, but she was often out of town, attending horse competitions around the country. Then, in January, she disappeared too, taking off in her red Jaguar.
A month later, on Feb. 5, McNabney's body was found in a shallow grave in a California vineyard, one leg sticking out of the ground. Police at first thought it was possible Elisa was also a victim, but then they found McNabney's horse trailer loaded with Elisa's belongings, including documents that would lead them to her mysterious past.
Friend: He Was 'Obsessed'
McNabney met Elisa in 1995, when she started to work at his law practice, then located in Nevada. The couple married in January 1996, when he was 47 and she was just about to turn 30. Friends said he knew little about his new wife's past, but did not seem to care. They noted that she always changed the subject when asked about her past, but he told them, "I've got everything under control."
But the following year McNabney was censured by the Nevada State Bar after his wife was accused of embezzling money from his clients. But he did not leave her. "He was obsessed with her for whatever reason," said Tom Mitchell, one of McNabney's three closest friends in Nevada. "He knew what she had done, and he knew that he would constantly have to worry about her, that he couldn't trust her. But he wanted to be with her."
In 1998, the McNabneys left Nevada and started a new life in Sacramento, Calif. They had less and less contact with McNabney's friends and family in Nevada. McNabney's daughter from a previous marriage, Tavia Williams, said Elisa told her she could have no contact with her father, while Mitchell suspected she wanted to distance him from the people who cared about him.
But they heard about the couple's successes in horse competitions. "Larry was the fast-rising star in the United States concerning quarter horse showing, period. He was the fella and he had a national reputation," said Fred Atcheson, one of McNabney's Nevada friends.
The McNabneys made a mark in California and on the showing circuit, where they were known as popular and outgoing. Horse trainer Denise Reese remembers them as "a very loving, happy couple," while her husband Evan says McNabney was an "excellent showman" in the ring.
McNabney was last seen at a horse show in Industry, Calif. in September. On Sept. 10, witnesses said he made uncharacteristic mistakes while he was performing in the halter class competition, and went to bed early saying he felt ill. The next day, vendors at the show saw Elisa wheeling McNabney away in a wheelchair.
Office Closed, Assets Liquidated
Although McNabney disappeared from public, Elisa continued to show up at horse shows for several months. Then she closed his Sacramento law office and vanished too, last seen on Jan. 11 leaving town in her Jaguar.
When San Joaquin County police went to McNabney's office, they found the place cleared out, except for his personal mementos. They also found his horse trailer packed with Elisa's belongings, including documents for different aliases. Elisa had sold off her husband's assets in the past few months, raising an estimated $500,000, the police found.
Then McNabney's body turned up, and the cause of death was identified as a lethal dose of acepromazine, a horse tranquilizer. Police charged Elisa with first-degree murder with special circumstances, poisoning with a motive for financial gain, and a federal warrant was issued for her arrest.
A Woman of Many Names
The San Joaquin police also learned who Elisa really was: an ex-convict from Florida with a rap sheet 113 pages long. Known to have used at least 38 aliases and numerous Social Security numbers, her real name was Laren Renee Sims. She was wanted in Florida and Washington for credit card and grand theft charges.
When police finally tracked her down in Destin, Fla. on March 18, Sims, 36, went peacefully, telling them, "I'm the one you're looking for."
The next day, she came clean in a three-page confession. She said she and an accomplice fed him the horse tranquilizer and drove him into the mountains. She said they tried to bury him, but he was still alive so they took him home, where he finally died that night. There they loaded him into a refrigerator. When rigor mortis set in, his body stiffened, forcing the door open. So, Sims said, they wrapped the refrigerator in duct tape to keep it shut, and left the body there for about three months. Finally, she said, she chose a vineyard to bury him in because he had always liked wine.
Sims will never face charges in court. On March 30, she was found hanging in her cell at the Hernando County jail. She left a suicide note asking her lawyer to sue the jail for failing to prevent her from killing herself, and suggesting the money be put in a trust for her two children.