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Book on McNabney killing hits bookstores

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Posted: Wednesday, December 8, 2004 10:00 pm

Three years after Woodbridge attorney Larry McNabney disappeared, a true crime author has published a book about his life, death and the two women accused of murdering him.

Carlton Smith's book, "Cold-Blooded," went on sale Monday and is available at area bookstores, as well as on most major booksellers' Web sites.

The 352-page book looks like many other paperback novels, with one difference: This book prominently features a Woodbridge home on its cover.

McNabney's September 2001 death was kept hidden for nearly five months. Then the story began making headlines.

His body was found buried in an area vineyard, his wife fled the state and committed suicide in a Florida jail, and his legal secretary was ultimately charged with murder.

After a lengthy trial, a San Joaquin County jury convicted former Sacramento college student Sarah Dutra of voluntary manslaughter and accessory to murder. She was sentenced to 11 years in state prison, and her case remains on appeal.

The trial lasted two months and detailed the way McNabney's wife, Elisa, and Dutra allegedly drained his law firm of money, killed him and then stored his body in a refrigerator.

Prosecutors alleged that Dutra helped administer fatal doses of horse tranquilizer, then joined Elisa McNabney in lying about the attorney's whereabouts.

Sheriff's detectives spent months tracking down financial records and Elisa McNabney's numerous aliases, but lead detective Deborah Scheffel still wonders about some aspects.

Scheffel, now a welfare fraud investigator for the District Attorney's Office, had been waiting for the book and hoping it would answer some questions.

"When Elisa died, the case kind of changed. For an author doing the book, there are a lot of answers that I couldn't get," she said Wednesday.

Smith, who makes a living by writing true crime books, was able to spend the time finding Elisa McNabney's high school classmates and Larry McNabney's clients from two decades ago.


Carlton Smith

He attended part of Dutra's preliminary hearing, then got trial transcripts for the rest of the case. Smith then began gathering more information.

Working with about a dozen large binders, Smith usually organizes all documents in chronological order, then tries to fill in the holes. The actual writing only takes one to two months, but the research is what takes longer, he said.

He went to Florida, where Elisa McNabney's parents refused to talk. Her daughter, Haylei Jordan, also declined an interview because she was considering selling the story.

"I never pay for interviews because once you start to pay for an interview, you never know if the information you're getting is accurate. And, I don't make enough to pay them," Smith said.

The author, who will turn 58 next week, started as a reporter in 1969 at the Los Angeles Times, where his first task was to cover the police beat on the weekends.

On his first trip to the police department, he had been there about an hour when actress Sharon Tate was found dead. Her death was later tied to Charles Manson, who was convicted of multiple murders.

After eight years, Smith went to a newspaper in Oregon, then to the Seattle Times where he covered politics, as well as what became known as the Green River Killer case. In the early 1980s, dozens of young women began disappearing in Seattle, and many of them were found dead near the Green River.

It would take 20 years before DNA linked Gary Ridgway to the cases, and he agreed earlier this year to plead guilty and to help find the bodies.

Smith co-wrote a book about the case long before it was solved, and the book sold well.

"I thought to myself, 'I know how to do this, this is simple.' It turns out, it's not so simple," Smith said by telephone Wednesday.

He's in negotiations for another Green River Killer book with a different angle, and then Smith may call an end to his career as a true crime writer.

Since 1991, writing crime books has been his full-time job, and he has written about nearly 200 victims.

"There are scores of people I've talked to whose daughters or brothers or children have been done away with. It's very tragic," Smith said.

He found the McNabney story to be no different.

Parts of the book focus on Elisa McNabney, who was born Laren Sims and later took the identity of a fellow prisoner and reinvented herself in Nevada. Other parts tell the story of Larry McNabney, who had once been a prominent criminal defense attorney and well-known horseman.

Still other parts of the book dwell on Dutra, the Vacaville honor student who, now 24, is currently in Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.

Smith hopes the book does well, though he won't have any sales numbers for months.

One person hoping to soon buy the book is Scheffel. She'd been contacted by four or five authors, but Smith was the only one she agreed to help -- partly because any such endeavor takes time.

"He seemed to be a legitimate author with a track record for printing the truth and not sensationalizing the cases he covered," Scheffel said.

Smith, in the meantime, has already moved on to other books. He actually finished the McNabney tale in July 2003, then had to wait for editors and publishers at St. Martin's Press.

However, he hasn't forgotten the story.

"By the end, I felt kind of sorry for Elisa. She's a deadly person to be married to, there isn't any doubt about that. But she didn't start out that way," he said.

"At some level she really wanted to be on the straight and narrow. But every time she would get herself into a jam, she'd think of the most extreme way out of it."

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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