Murder or Wrongful Conviction? The death of Debbie Race


The evening of May 11, 1982, was unfolding as Larry Race had hoped. He and his wife Debbie were celebrating their 14th anniversary. The Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, couple had dinner on the veranda of an upscale restaurant with a breathtaking view of Lake Superior. Afterward, they enjoyed a romantic evening on the shores of the lake, drifting in their small boat as they talked and listened to music. To Larry, the enchanted evening felt like a second honeymoon. But the events soon turned as dark as the Minnesota night.

On the following afternoon, Debbie’s body was found along Lake Superior’s shore. She had perished in the lake’s chilly waters.

Larry said he had done everything he could to save his wife. The state of Minnesota disagreed, saying what happened was a clear cut case of cold-blooded murder.

Larry and Debbie’s families both supported Larry’s story. A jury, however, agreed with the state.

Larry and Debbie Race, each 33-years-old, had three children and lived in Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, in the northeast part of the state, 75 miles from Lake Superior. The couple’s marriage had been rocky for several years because of Larry’s numerous girlfriends.

Larry acknowledges his infidelity but says he was putting an end to his affairs. He also says Debbie had forgiven him and agreed to give him another chance. The romantic evening along Lake Superior was to be the start of repairing the relationship.

Larry was an avid boater and scuba diver. He owned a small boat named the “Jenny Lee” named after their two daughters.

The following is Larry’s account of the events that unfolded after he and Debbie left the restaurant on the evening of May 11, 1982.

Larry says the sun was setting as he and Debbie set sail. For nearly an hour-and-a-half, they drifted approximately a mile offshore of Lake Superior.

Around 9:00 p.m., after darkness had fallen, they noticed the Jenny Lee was taking on water. Larry says he turned off the engine, and the leakage stopped, but the boat still would not restart. Larry re-examined the engine and heard gushing noises at the bottom of the boat.

Larry says he grew concerned and that Debbie panicked. As the boat continued to take on more water, Larry says Debbie insisted on getting off the boat and that he, not using sound judgment, agreed.

Larry says he had two life rafts on board and that he attempted to inflate one of them but found holes in it and tossed it into the lake. Larry says he inflated the second raft, but it was meant for only one person.

Debbie put her purse and other valuables and Larry’s shoes into a gear bag. She took it and the scuba tank onto the life raft. Larry had his dry suit and scuba tanks on board the boat. He was a strong swimmer and thought he could tow Debbie and the raft to shore because he had done so with his daughters when the Jenny Lee had previously broken down. Larry says he was making progress on getting the raft to shore but was getting cold. When he attempted to get into the raft with Debbie, it started to sink.

Larry says the cold water’s effect on his body hindered his judgment and made another poor decision. He says he saw lights in the distance that appeared to be closer than the shore, so he decided to swim toward them. As he did so, Debbie continued to inch her way to shore.

However, it soon dawned on Larry the light he had seen in the dark was from the Jenny Lee. He made it back to the boat, and, this time, the engine started.

After catching his breath, Larry says, continued to search for Debbie, all the while firing distress signals in the air. Unable to find her, he returned to shore and notified the Coast Guard. They conducted a grid search of the lake but to no avail.

On the following afternoon of May 12, a boy walking home from school found Debbie’s body, lying face-up, along the lakeshore. An autopsy determined she had not drowned. Instead, Debbie had succumbed to hypothermia, a reduced body temperature that occurs when a body dissipates more heat than it absorbs.

The average body temperature in humans is 98.6°Fahrenheit; hypothermia is defined as a core body temperature below 95.0 °F. Although the weather was warm on the evening of Larry and Debby’s debacle, the temperature of Lake Superior’s waters was only 37 ° F, easily cold enough to kill someone who had been in the water for as long as Debbie had been.

Neither the police nor prosecutors bought Larry’s story that Debbie’s death was an accident brought about by circumstances beyond his control. They believed the actions leading to Debbie’s demise were brought about purposefully by an unfaithful husband wanting out of his marriage.

Larry Race was arrested and charged with his wife’s murder.

Prosecutors believed Larry’s motives for killing Debbie were the oldest in the books: to collect insurance money. In November of 1981, seven months before Debbie’s death, Larry had taken out life insurance policies on Debbie, totaling $108,000.

Larry’s Appellate Attorney countered that $37,000 was mortgage insurance on their house, and the rest was part of a group policy through his credit union. Several relatives also contend it was Debbie who had sought the extra life insurance.

Multiple women testified to Larry’s infidelities. Prosecutors established that he had had at least four extramarital affairs during his 14-year-marriage to Debbie.

One woman testified that she had been with Larry the weekend before Debbie’s death and that he had professed his love for her and his disdain for Debbie.

Larry’s lawyers acknowledged his affairs.

A Deputy Sheriff testified that approximately two weeks before Debbie’s death, Larry had told him he had two life rafts aboard the Jenny Lee, although the deputy did not see them. When he was initially questioned 11 days after Debbie’s death, the deputy made no mention of hearing about two life rafts.

Larry is adamant two life rafts were aboard the Jenny Lee on the evening of May 11, 1982. The raft which he says he tossed into Lake Superior after finding holes in it was never found. Although multiple friends testified on Larry’s behalf at his trial, none could ever recall having seen two rafts aboard the Jenny Lee. Also, the Coast Guard’s search and rescue team are confident that if that second raft had been tossed into the water as Larry contends, they would have found it during their search.

The raft, which was found, became a cornerstone of the prosecution’s case against Larry Race. Five puncture cuts were found in the bottom of the raft, and several experts testified the cuts had been made in the raft while it was inflated because no knife cuts on the top of the raft corresponded with the bottom punctures, meaning the air chambers were inflated when the cuts were made.

Prosecutors argued this shows the cuts were not random acts such as vandalism or that they had developed through wear and tear.

The state argued Larry pushed Debbie into the raft well away from the Jenny Lee and then returned to the boat to don his scuba equipment. They contend Larry swam back to Debbie’s raft and slashed it with a knife, leaving her to sink and freeze to death in the icy waters. Once Debbie had been set adrift, Larry dragged the life raft back to the Jenny Lee to support his story about attempting to inflate the first raft.

A knife was found aboard the Jenny Lee, but its punctures did not match those in the raft. The knife used to cut the raft was never found, nor was the gear bag in which Larry says Debbie had put her valuables.

Witnesses place the Jenny Lee near the mouth of the Talmadge River at 8:30 p.m. and again at 9:30 p.m. Debbie’s body was found seven miles west of that spot.

Underwater expert Jean Aubineau testified for the defense, saying it would have been impossible for a body to drift seven miles without a raft. He said a body with a life vest such as Debbie was wearing would have traveled only 1-2 miles before hitting the shore and that the only way Debbie could have traveled seven miles downriver was on a raft.

However, the prosecution negated the testimony by arguing that because the Jenny Lee’s location was unknown at the time Larry and Debbie abandoned her, it was impossible to develop a legitimate drift theory.

Larry’s attorneys claim the skin lividity in Debbie’s body also proves that she came ashore in a life raft.

Lividity is a settling of the blood in the lower portion of the body postmortem, causing a purplish red discoloration of the skin. Debbie’s blood had not sunk to her feet, and the defense claimed it would have done so if she would have been kept in an upright position by a life vest.

The state said the lividity of Debbie’s blood following her death was toward her back, which is consistent with floating in the water with a life jacket without a raft. An expert testified for the prosecution that the particular life jacket worn by Debbie would have kept her face-up on her back, as she was found, while she floated after her death.

On his attorneys’ advice, Larry Race did not testify on his own behalf at his trial.

In November 1983, he was found guilty of the first-degree murder of his wife Debbie and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 17 years.

After his conviction, Larry hired a new team of lawyers for his appeal. They argued Larry should be granted a new trial because of ineffective legal counsel and subsequent mechanical problems aboard the Jenny Lee.

Following his trial, Larry sold the Jenny Lee to help pay his legal bills. In June of 1984, the small boat again malfunctioned on the waters. The new owner, familiar with Larry’s case, contacted authorities. They had an independent mechanic, unfamiliar with the case, examine the boat.

The mechanic said the engine was worn and would have caused an intermittent starting failure akin to the one Larry says occurred. He could not say that the problem existed on the evening of Debbie’s death two years earlier.

The appellate court ruled the ex post facto mechanical difficulties aboard the Jenny Lee as irrelevant and denied a new trial request.

In 1992, two men claimed to have seen a life raft floating on Lake Superior approximately one year after Debbie’s death. The men said the raft was blue and yellow, the same colors as of the recovered raft from the Jenny Lee.

The men’s stories were inconsistent. In some instances, they claimed to see the raft in 1983, but they later seemed to think it was much later. Furthermore, they gave differing accounts of where the raft was found, sometimes saying it was in Lake Superior but at other times saying it was found in a nearby river. As a result, their contentions were deemed insufficient in warranting a new trial.

Larry Race’s multiple appeals for a new trial were all denied, as was his first attempt when he became eligible for parole in 2001. In May of 2005, after serving over 21 years in prison, Larry Race was granted parole. He continues to maintain his innocence in the death of his wife, Debbie.


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One thought on “Murder or Wrongful Conviction? The death of Debbie Race

  1. I am a retired member of the Coast Guard Reserve. I did not work in the Search & Rescue at a life boat station. I worked in Pollution Prevention enforcement.

    However, I have a problem with the husband not making sure his boat was in good shape, and also the life rafts were on workable condition. He is a diver and would make sure his scuba equipment was working before leaving the dock, and entering the water.

    Also, it appears he had no radio, since he made no attempt to call the Coast Guard, and seek assistance. His wife would still be alive, and if necessary they would have towed him in.

    The Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Auxiliary have an inspection program, that makes sure that the boat has the proper life saving equipment and is safe to operate. If he passed an inspection by the Auxiliary, then is somewhat safe from a full boarding by the Coast Guard patrol boat.

    It appears the husband was not concerned about the condition of the boat and the engine problems, nor that the supposed life rafts were safe to use.

    Like

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