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Detective highlighted in documentary, but may face charges after fatal crash

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Posted: Tuesday, May 18, 2004 10:00 pm

For a highly respected San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department homicide detective, the case came at a time when she was continuing to move up the ranks and gain more respect for her work.

For an Emmy-award winning producer, the case came at a time when he had made enough films to know that he had met someone who was not the average detective.

But, in an unintended twist of timing, the television show that resulted from the meeting between detective and producer will air tonight - when the detective is no longer working in homicide and may be facing her own day in court due to a fatal vehicle accident.

A little more than a year after Detective Deborah Scheffel saw the high-profile Larry McNabney murder case end in a manslaughter conviction and an 11-year prison sentence for defendant Sara Dutra, the story of Scheffel's investigation will be told tonight on national television.

The hour-long CourtTV documentary, "Trail of Deceit," airing at 10 p.m. locally on cable TV's Channel 27, tells the story of McNabney, a Woodbridge resident, whose wife and a legal secretary were arrested for his murder. The show's producer, who says Scheffel stands out among the numerous police officers he's interviewed over the years, focused much of the documentary on the detective herself.

But many things have changed in the months since the trial and the filming of "Trail of Deceit." In February, Scheffel took a vacation and was involved in a vehicle accident that killed a Los Gatos man, and injured his wife and baby.

Crash investigators have forwarded the case to the Santa Cruz County District Attorney's Office, recommending charges of misdemeanor manslaughter without malice.

While the possible charges weigh heavily on Scheffel, the emotional impact of the whole ordeal has taken the heaviest toll. The worst thing that could happen - death - has already happened, Scheffel said.

"There's no getting away from it, there's no avoiding it, there's no living without it," she said.

The accident

On Feb. 15, Scheffel was driving along Highway 1 near Santa Cruz when she came up behind a car that had stopped to wait for oncoming traffic before turning left. Scheffel said she tried to stop, and a newspaper reported that her motor home, traveling at 55 mph, left long skid marks at the scene.

Her motor home rear-ended the car, with the tires already turned to the left in anticipation of making a turn, California Highway Patrol spokesman Jason Butler said.

The car was pushed into oncoming traffic, and the driver, Zdenek Zajic, died instantly, the CHP said. His wife and 2-year-old child, whom authorities did not identify, were hospitalized with injuries that were not life threatening.

"Taking that baby out of the car," Scheffel said, her voice fading away into a short moment of silence. "I could tell immediately that the man was dead, the family dog was dead and the wife was trapped. … I just wanted to stay there and crawl into a fetal position, but I couldn't."

The accident remains a raw emotional wound for Scheffel. Talking about it brings tears to her eyes. It's something that will stay with her forever, she said.

Scheffel is still using her investigative skills at her job with the Sheriff's Department, but she has moved out of the homicide division.

"To work homicide, you have to be able to give 150 percent. There can't be anything distracting you, because homicides are the ultimate crimes against humanity. When someone takes a life on purpose, we as a society can't put up with that," she said.

In a homicide case, the first hours of the investigation are the most crucial, Scheffel said. Investigators must be able to devote all their attention to the task at hand, and there is no time to waste.

Rather than compromise a homicide case, Scheffel chose instead to work in backgrounds - investigating those who apply to work at the Sheriff's Department. The work is still crucial, but it's something that can be done at a slightly slower pace.

Finding support

Scheffel's colleagues are supporting her, and Sheriff Baxter Dunn said he'd love to have her back in homicide at some point.

"She's the one that I would want on a case if anything happened to someone I was close to," he said.

Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa, who has worked with Scheffel on several complicated murder cases - including the McNabney case - said he also hopes to see her eventually return to homicide.

In late 2001, the two finished a long case that ended in the multiple murder convictions of Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog.

Scheffel recalls thinking that she'd never again meet two homicide suspects who seemed to fuel one another.

But then, two months after that case concluded, Scheffel was called to a Clements vineyard.

The body of a man had been found, and on that February 2002 day, the homicide detective was given a new case to unravel.

That vineyard scene opens the CourtTV documentary that follows Scheffel through her investigation into the death of McNabney, a prominent Sacramento lawyer. Last fall, Scheffel - along with people who knew McNabney - relived the story that was later edited into the documentary by two-time Emmy-award winner Richard Kroehling.

Spotlight on a detective

Within an hour of meeting Scheffel, Kroehling said Tuesday by telephone from New York, he knew he wanted to focus on the detective.

"In the years that I've worked on these kinds of cases, she stands alone both as a human being in her compassion and humanity, and for her craft," he said.

"I really wanted to show the public that here is someone who is out there working for us. She cares and she's good. We pay her to face evil that we don't want to face."

That "evil" began with the finding of McNabney's body. It continued when an autopsy revealed that he had been poisoned with horse tranquilizer.

Scheffel began looking for possible suspects and found one who stood out. McNabney's wife, Elisa, had vanished and soon aroused suspicion when it was discovered that she had a long list of aliases, including that of Laren Sims.

After liquidating a great deal of Larry McNabney's property, Elisa McNabney had fled the state, and Scheffel began following her trail across the county. It was then that the investigation expanded to include Sarah Dutra, a 21-year-old California State University, Sacramento student who worked in the McNabney law office and was close to Elisa McNabney.

A month after the attorney's body was found, Elisa McNabney was arrested by police in Florida. There she confessed to authorities and implicated Dutra in the crime.

On Easter Sunday, Elisa McNabney hanged herself in her Florida jail cell, leaving behind a suicide note that further implicated Dutra. The college student, a one-time Vacaville High School senior class president, was left to stand trial.

Charged with murder that could have carried a sentence of life in prison without parole, Dutra was convicted of manslaughter. Now 23, she is in prison and could be released on parole by the time she is 30.

The conviction satisfied Scheffel, but she had a bigger purpose that Kroehling said he tried to work into the show.

"Truth and information is what helps people deal with the tragedies that happen in their life. We all want to know, why? Why did that happen?" Scheffel tells the television audience as the camera zooms in on her eyes.

That's a question Scheffel never had to ask herself - at least until the fatal February accident. She's never tried to justify things, she said, because she was always the one investigating a wrong-doing.

"You spend your whole career trying to be part of the solution - driving the speed limit. Being part of something like this (accident) is so contrary to my career," she said.

For Scheffel, who has been with the Sheriff's Department for 21 years, work is her "solace," she said. She's found that others still believe she can do a thorough job and will support her.

Tonight, while Americans watch the show featuring some of Scheffel's finest work, the detective will likely be asleep, waiting to watch the show on videotape.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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