Real Name: Deborah Jean Selvey Race
Location: Lake Superior, Minnesota
Date: May 11, 1982
Details: Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world. The water temperature hovers near freezing for most of the year. A person adrift without a life raft stands little chance of survival. On May 12, 1982, the lake claimed another victim: thirty-three-year-old Debbie Race. Her life jacket was intact; she had not drowned. Instead, she had succumbed to the icy lake temperatures and died of hypothermia.
According to the authorities, Debbie’s death was no accident. Her husband, Larry, was accused of deliberately allowing her to freeze to death in the lake. He was subsequently convicted of murder. Yet her own parents believe that he could not possibly have harmed her. After several years and five unsuccessful post-trial reviews, Larry has one final appeal.
Larry is currently serving a life sentence at Stillwater State Prison in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He maintains that the jury which convicted him was prejudiced, because he had a long history of adulterous relationships. He insists that what happened that night was an accident. He admits to be unfaithful, but also maintains that he had nothing to do with her death.
Debbie and Larry, along with their three children, lived in Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, seventy-five miles from Lake Superior. His hobbies were boating and scuba diving, while she built her world around her home, her church, and her children. Over the years, their marriage suffered badly because of his four affairs. But by 1982, according to Larry, they had vowed to try again.
May 11, 1982 was Larry and Debbie’s fourteenth wedding anniversary. To celebrate, they had dinner at a lakeview restaurant, then took their boat, the Jenny Lee (named after their daughters), onto Lake Superior for an evening cruise. Larry felt as if they were starting over again. He claimed that he wanted to stop cheating, and felt that he finally had the chance to do so. He felt that he could appreciate Debbie and be happy with her.
As darkness fell, Larry and Debbie drifted contentedly. They stayed about one mile off shore, enjoying the view of the city lights and listening to tapes of their favorite music. Suddenly, at 9pm, the mood was broken. She noticed that the boat was taking on water. According to him, she began to panic. She had no faith in the boat because it had nearly sunk the summer before. When they pulled the cover off of the engine, they noticed that water was spraying all over the place. He had her shut the engine down. He took the alternator, loosened up the bolt, and dropped the alternator. As soon as it dropped, the engine shut down and the water leaking stopped.
According to Larry, at that point, things were under control. They worked together to fix the boat and stop the water. Once they finished their repairs, Debbie went to start the engine. She was unsuccessful. He tried but was also unable to get it to start. When they heard a “gushing” and “wooshing” noise from the bottom of the boat, they both panicked. She told him that she wanted to get off of the boat. Against his better judgement, he agreed.
The first thing they did was get out the life raft to get it blown up. They had a scuba tank on board for that purpose. However, because there were holes in the raft, they were unable to use it. According to Larry, he tossed it aside and got out the second raft. They filled that one up the same way they did with the first one. The second one inflated successfully. He then had Debbie get into it. She put her purse and other valuables, as well as his shoes, into a gear bag. She took the bag and a scuba tank with her into the raft.
Larry had his dry suit and scuba tanks on board. He was a strong swimmer, and thought he could tow Debbie and the raft to safety. He had done the same thing with his daughters when the boat ran into trouble the summer before. After pushing Debbie and the raft for several minutes, he got tired and cold. He tried to get into the raft with her, but it began to fill up with water and she began to panic, so he stopped. He looked off to the right and saw lights coming towards them. Since they were closer than the shore, he decided to swim towards them.
The light Larry had seen was his own boat. This time, the engine started. After catching his breath, he searched for Debbie, all the while firing distress flares. In the end, at around 2am (five hours after the ordeal began), he returned to shore and notified the Coast Guard. They conducted a grid search of the lake, to no avail. The next afternoon, a teenager on his way home from school saw Debbie’s body on the lake shore. A few months later, Larry was charged with murder.
At Larry’s trial, his attorneys advised him not to take the stand on his own behalf. After he was convicted, he hired a new team of lawyers, insisting that he had been the victim of incompetent counsel. He believes that if he had testified, the jury would not have found him guilty.
The prosecuting attorney at Larry’s trial was John DeSanto of Duluth, Minnesota. Even though the case against Larry was circumstantial, DeSanto was able to convince a jury that Larry had the opportunity, means, and motive to murder Debbie. He has absolutely no doubt that Larry was guilty of first-degree murder. He believes that the evidence showed that Larry wanted out of his unhappy marriage. According to one mistress, their affair lasted up to the weekend before Debbie's death. According to two other mistresses, Larry did not like Debbie's weight, housekeeping, and spending habits. After her death, he contacted them and told them to tell police that they were just "friends". He also noted that Larry had $108,000 of life insurance in place on Debbie that he had purchased seven months prior to her death through Credit Life Insurance.
According to David Larson, Larry’s appellate attorney, part of the life insurance – about $37,000 – was mortgage insurance that came along with the mortgage on his house. The rest of it came as part of a group policy from his credit union. There was some testimony that indicated that Debbie was the one to seek out the additional insurance coverage.
Larry’s defense was built around his story of mechanical problems on the boat. The prosecution claimed that he had concocted the entire episode. Friends who had been on the boat a few days before Debbie's death said that there were no problems with it. When officers went on the boat the day after Debbie's death, they found no evidence that it was in danger of sinking. Its bilge pump was functional enough to have pumped out any water on it.
After Larry's trial, the boat was sold; in May 1984, an independent mechanic examined the starter. He said that it was worn, and that it could cause an intermittent starting failure – on some occasions, it would cause the engine to not start. At one of Larry’s post-conviction hearings, the mechanic testified about the starter problem. DeSanto pointed out that the mechanic could not say that the problem was definitely present on the boat on the night of Debbie’s death. As a result, his testimony was ruled irrelevant both in the trial and appellate courts.
Larry is adamant that he had two life rafts on board the boat. However, according to DeSanto, the evidence showed that there was only one raft on the boat that night. All of Larry’s diving companions and friends that testified at the trial said that they had never seen him in possession of two blue-and-yellow rafts, as he claims. Also, the search-and-rescue personnel from the Coast Guard said that if the second raft had existed, they would have found it. However, his brother and two daughters testified that he did have two rafts. For reasons unknown, they did not tell anyone about this until shortly before the trial.
At the trial, a sheriff’s deputy also testified that Larry had told him there were two life rafts on board. According to the deputy, Larry specifically said, “What about rafts? I have two.” This conversation apparently happened two weeks before Debbie’s death. According to the prosecution, however, the deputy’s testimony was inconsistent. When he was first questioned eleven days after her death, he said he knew nothing about two rafts.
The prosecution claims that Larry pushed Debbie and the raft well away from the boat. He then returned to the boat and donned his scuba equipment. They say he swam back under the raft and slashed it with a knife, leaving her to freeze to death in the icy waters. An examination of the raft found on the boat showed that there were five punctures or cuts in the bottom of it. The cuts had occurred while it was inflated. Experts testified that there was no knife cut on the top of the raft that would correspond with the bottom puncture. It was determined that the raft and its air chambers were inflated when the cuts occurred. The cuts were strategically placed because they cut both air chambers. DeSanto did not believe the cuts were a result of vandalism because they were so strategically placed.
The prosecution failed to produce the knife used to cut the raft. The puncture marks did not match the only knife found on board the boat. However, it was noted that Larry owned two diver knives; neither was ever found. A diver knife was believed to have been used to cut the raft. The prosecution asserts that once Debbie had been set adrift, Larry dragged the raft back to the boat, so he would have support for his story about attempting to inflate a first raft. Interestingly, water was found inside the raft, even though he initially claimed it was never in the water. When he was told about the water in the raft, he changed his story and said he had tossed it overboard. The caps on both air chambers were securely closed, even though he said he had never done that and, instead, tossed it aside when it would not inflate.
According to underwater expert Jean Aubineau, the actions that the prosecution says Larry did that night would have required “superhuman effort” and were not physically possible. Witnesses placed the boat near the mouth of the Talmadge River at 8:30pm and again at 9:30pm. Debbie’s body was found seven miles away. According to Aubineau, it would have been impossible for a body to drift that far without a raft. According to him, if she had been in the water in a parka and life vest, she would only have been able to travel one or two miles before coming onshore. He believes that she only could have traveled seven miles on a raft. DeSanto, however, pointed out that they do not know where the boat was on the lake when she got out of it. Therefore, there would be no way of knowing how far her body actually travelled from leaving the boat to reaching the shore. He does not believe that Aubineau’s theory is credible.
According to Larry’s attorneys, the skin lividity in Debbie’s body also proves that she came ashore in a life raft. Her blood had not sunk to her feet. They claim it would have done so if she had been kept afloat in an upright position by a life vest. DeSanto notes that, according to the autopsy report, the lividity of her blood was to the back, which was consistent with her floating in the water with a life vest and no raft. According to an expert at trial, the vest would have kept her basically face up on her back as she floated following her death. Her body was later found face up on her back on the lake shore, which would continue to move the lividity to her back.
After hearing all the evidence, but without hearing from Larry himself, a jury of four men and eight women found him guilty of murder. Larry’s daughters could not believe that he was guilty; they noted that there was no concrete evidence to prove his guilt. They believe that he was convicted because of the affairs. Surprisingly, Debbie’s parents also do not believe that he was guilty.
Larry's attorneys are currently trying to put together a search for the valuables that Debbie allegedly took on the raft. He continues to maintain his innocence.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the December 18, 1991 episode.
Results: Unresolved. On the night of the broadcast, a witness called the telecenter and said that she and her sister had found a life raft on Lake Superior in May 1983, one year after Debbie's death. They believed that it was the same type that Larry had used that night. The raft has since been lost. The information was forwarded to his attorneys; the witnesses testified for his 1993 appeal. However, their testimony was inconsistent. In some instances, they claimed it was found in 1983. In others, they could not be certain when it was found. Certain details in their story suggested that they actually did not find it until 1992. Furthermore, they sometimes changed the location of where it was found, from Lake Superior to a nearby river. As a result, their testimony was dismissed by the appellate court.
In May 2005, after all possible appeals were exhausted unsuccessfully, Larry was released on parole. He had served twenty-two years of his life sentence. He and his children continue to maintain his innocence.
Sadly, in 2010, Debbie's parents both passed away.
- Body found along Lake Superior shore - May 12, 1982
- Body of Hoyt Lakes woman washes ashore in Duluth (Page 1) (Page 2) - May 13, 1982
- Report says woman died of exposure (Page 1) (Page 2) - May 19, 1982
- Sheriff asks for grand jury review of boating death on Lake Superior - September 18, 1982
- Trial begins in woman's Lake Superior death - October 28, 1983
- Victim's parents asked to leave murder trial - November 3, 1983
- Brother testifies in Duluth murder trial that Larry Race bought raft from him - November 15, 1983
- Michelle Race says father had two life rafts - November 16, 1983
- A man was convicted of murder Thursday for setting his wife adrift - November 17, 1983
- St. Louis County jury deliberated 12 hours before finding Larry Race guilty of murdering his wife - November 18, 1983
- Husband faces life for setting wife adrift - November 18, 1983
- Claims he's lifesaver, convicted for murder - November 18, 1983
- Man convicted of killing wife on cruise - November 18, 1983
- Jury declares murder verdict in life raft case - November 22, 1983
- Judge to review requests to free killer - January 8, 1984
- Larry Race's attorney seeks new trial - February 15, 1985
- State v. Race - March 21, 1986
- A tale of two convicts (Page 1) (Page 2) - March 22, 1986
- Larry Race again asks for new trial - October 7, 1987
- Race v. State - August 13, 1993
- Man convicted in wife's death set to be released - May 22, 2005
- SitcomsOnline Discussion of Larry and Debbie Race
- Debbie Race on Find a Grave