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CourtTV focusing on sheriff's detective for McNabney documentary

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Posted: Friday, November 21, 2003 10:00 pm

A CourtTV film crew spent the better part of this week in San Joaquin County, following in the footsteps of a Sheriff's detective who investigated the disappearance and murder of Woodbridge resident Larry McNabney.

Crew members interviewed key players in the case and even paid a visit to the vineyard where McNabney was found buried nearly two years ago.

The hour-long documentary, focusing primarily on the case investigation led by Sheriff's Detective Debbie Scheffel, will likely air nationwide a few months from now, said Producer Richard Kroehling.

Scheffel herself said it was the biggest case she has ever investigated, and Kroehling expressed nothing but admiration for the detective, with whom he spent parts of two days this week.

"First she had a missing person case, and that quickly turned into a who-done-it. Then it turned into another missing person case, and that turned into an identity search," Kroehling said.

McNabney, a Sacramento attorney, was last seen alive Sept. 11, 2001, at a Southern California horse show. His body was found five months later, buried in a shallow grave in a vineyard east of Lodi.

On Monday, Scheffel took the CourtTV production team to the remote gravesite so they could see the area for themselves, and show it to viewers.

"They're not just portraying the facts as a newscaster sitting behind a news desk," Scheffel said.

"We experienced the remoteness of that location, nothing but the birds and the cattle. … The average citizen doesn't know what it's like to respond to a crime scene," she added.

In the months after McNabney's disappearance, his wife and legal secretary continued running his law firm, making money by selling his truck and cashing clients' checks.

They told friends and clients who later testified in court that McNabney had joined a cult, was in an alcohol treatment program or had gone to Costa Rica, among other lies.

By the time his body was found, Elisa McNabney had disappeared, leaving Scheffel to follow the trail and discover that the woman was actually Laren Sims, and had a long list of aliases.

The search became a nationwide investigation, making headline news from California to Florida, where Sims was finally located and arrested.

There she confessed to poisoning her husband with horse tranquilizer, and implicated legal secretary and Sacramento college student Sarah Dutra in the crime. Sims then committed suicide in her Florida jail cell in March 2002.

In the meantime, Scheffel and a team of investigators were trying to retrace the events of the previous six months.

"An investigation has a life and a mind of its own. As an investigator, it takes you along for the ride," Scheffel said.

After a lengthy trial, a jury convicted Dutra, now 23, of voluntary manslaughter, and she was sentenced in April to 11 years in state prison.

Two months later, the story aired in a 17-minute special on Fox's weekly show, "The Pulse."

The case caught the attention of other media outlets, too, including a true crime author whose book on the case is scheduled to be published in late spring or early summer.

Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa, who prosecuted Dutra, has been approached by both a writer from Playboy magazine and a producer for a Lifetime movie. CourtTV producers interviewed Testa on Monday.

The CourtTV documentary will probably air in about four months, said Kroehling, whose team traveled from Stockton to San Francisco later this week to interview a pathologist who testified in the case.

Though Scheffel and Testa both participated in an Arts and Entertainment documentary on a different case, the CourtTV experience was different, Scheffel said.

"It's interesting to meet people who do something completely different for a living, and have them show interest in what you do," said Scheffel, adding that she was watching TV on Thursday night and could imagine people working behind the scenes to make the show.

For Kroehling, who was been making films for 25 years, working with Scheffel was a fascinating experience.

"She's just so intuitive," he said. "As we were working, she was figuring out what we were doing. It's part of her natural inquisitive nature."

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