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Suspect's Suicide Is Latest Twist in Bizarre Murder

Crime: The woman, who fled California after poisoning her husband, hangs self in Florida jail. Arraignment is set for alleged accomplice.

April 02, 2002|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO -- For six months she had somehow lived with it.

Authorities say Laren Renee Sims killed her husband in September, poisoning his water bottle with a horse tranquilizer. She stowed the body in a garage freezer, then liquidated his worldly possessions, they say. He was buried in a farm field. Sims fled across the country in a red Jaguar. Within weeks, the local sheriff was branding her a ''black widow.''

When the law caught up with Sims and she found herself behind bars, there still was a way out. Over the weekend, she hanged herself in a Florida jail cell with a rope authorities say she fashioned from her bedsheets.

Sims' death leaves detectives and prosecutors in San Joaquin County, where the body of attorney Larry McNabney was discovered in February, puzzling over countless questions.

And authorities are left with a case that is very much alive. On Wednesday, Sarah Dutra, a 21-year-old Cal State Sacramento art student, faces arraignment on charges that she helped Sims plan the killing of McNabney to share in the spoils of his estate and law practice. If convicted of McNabney's murder, she could face the death penalty.

Sims, who went by the name of Elissa McNabney during her life as the attorney's wife, was Dutra's chief accuser. In a three-page statement she gave after her arrest in the resort town of Destin in the Florida Panhandle, Sims said Dutra helped plan and carry out the crime, all for financial gain.

Her handwritten statement alleged that Dutra took part in the poisoning, then helped transport McNabney, still semiconscious, to Yosemite National Park, where the two planned to bury him, police said.

Sims said in the statement that she could not go through with the burial while McNabney was still alive, so they took him home, where he died the next day.

She offered no motive.

''As human beings we struggle to understand why someone would do this,'' said Thomas Testa, a San Joaquin County deputy district attorney. Authorities now may never find answers to several key questions, he said, the biggest one being the motive for the slaying.

Was it the money? Sims purportedly fled after squeezing as much as $500,000 out of McNabney's business and savings. Or was it, Testa wondered, that the woman who spent her 20s jumping from alias to alias, petty crime to petty crime, may simply have embodied ''pure evil?''

After McNabney's slaying, he said, Sims at one point stuffed her husband's body into the trunk of her car and drove to Las Vegas to gamble and party while hunting for some place to bury him.

In the signed confession, Sims said she was alone when she buried McNabney in a vineyard. But she said Dutra--for two years a secretary at the law firm--helped her plan the murder while the trio attended a horse show Sept. 10 in Los Angeles County. Though the college student, a gifted art major and former senior class president in high school, was not the brains behind the slaying, prosecutors said, she was a willing participant.

Authorities say Dutra made incriminating statements to investigators before her arrest.

Even if Sims were still alive, Testa said her written confession could not be used in court against Dutra. By law, he said, one criminal defendant cannot be called by prosecutors to testify against another. But the case against Dutra remains solid, he said.

Dutra's attorney, Kevin Clymo of Sacramento, did not return phone calls Monday.

Prosecutors contend that Dutra was willingly led into the slaying by Sims. Dutra, they say, was in awe of Sims and relished the prospect of a high life on McNabney's money.

During Dutra's tenure at the law firm, she and Sims became friends, going on shopping sprees and wearing matching outfits.

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