Was Laura Shaw a reclusive, lonely, mild-mannered claims clerk or a high-rolling, horse-owning millionaire? When she embezzled more than 4 million dollars, she was both.
Laura Shaw is rich. A millionaire horsewoman with homes in three states. Some say she’s a lottery winner. Or the daughter of a Midwest jeweler. Or a supermarket heiress from old New England money. It’s hard to know which story to believe. But the horses are real. She lives for them: saddlebreds, quarter horses, broodmares — she owns as many as 30 at a time. She bids for them at auctions, then rides them in showrings, in black tie and tuxedo, jodhpurs, and a high silk hat. She’s won ribbons and trophies. She owns champions. She golfs with owners and trainers. She trains three afternoons weekly in a practice ring in Massachusetts, while her mother watches in a full-length mink.
She spends money like water: horses, horse vans, a camper, a Mercedes, hotel bills, riding lessons, vet bills, trainer fees, airfares to Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania — wherever there is a show — $3,500 monthly in boarding fees alone. She gives ponies to children, sponsors shows, donates trophies, buys her mother anything she wants. It’s all she can do to stay within her income, which averages $400,000 a year.
In the early summer of 1994, Lillian Gilpin, who trains horses on the south shore of Massachusetts, got a call from another trainer, a New Hampshire friend named Rob Turner, about a client he had. “There was this lady, who boarded some horses with him. And there was this one saddlebred — a three-year-old, his name was New Trial — that she wanted to show. But the lady couldn’t ride, Rob told me. She couldn’t ride worth a damn. He asked if I’d teach her. I said I’d give it a try.” Gilpin is sitting in a small tack room alongside the barn at Rocking Horse Farm in Plympton, Massachusetts, a stable she owns and runs. She is tall, blond, and small-boned — like a jockey — compact and leathery, the sort of woman you could pretty much bet doesn’t make her living behind a desk.
“So she shows up here one day — it was the beginning of summer — and says she wants to learn [to ride] by the fall… Well, I put her up on a horse. And yeah, she could sit him all right, but that was just about all. Rob had it right. She couldn’t ride worth a damn.
“But she was just so determined
. So willing. And she had so many questions — ‘Why this?’ ‘Why that?’ ‘How do you do this? ‘ ‘How do you do that?’ Plus she knew a lot. She read all the magazines, whatever there was to read. If she saw a horse walking down the street, she could tell you the sire and the dam. She just flat out loved horses. She ate, slept, and breathed horses. No one knew more about saddlebreds than Laura Shaw.
“So they began. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoon, Laura Shaw would show up for lessons at Lillian Gilpin’s barn. She bought a practice horse. Against All Odds, for $4.500 — “a skinny, ugly, scarred-up, eight-year-old saddlebred mare,” recalls Gilpin. “But she was obliging. Laura needed that. She was no natural. She wasn’t athletic, she wasn’t graceful. She needed an easy horse.”
The lessons went on. Through the summer, fall, and winter of 1994, then all of 1995. On the weekends Laura would drive with her mother to Rob Turner’s farm in New Hampshire, where she would practice her skills on New Trial — who was gentle and obliging, as saddlebreds go, but still, remembers Gilpin, ” too much horse” for Laura to handle in a show.
Over time, the two women grew close, the gritty, plain-speaking trainer with dirt under her fingernails and the shy, fervent horse lover who seemed to have no other life. But it was a closeness, says Gilpin, that had more boundaries than bonds: “I liked her. You couldn’t help but like her. But she was different — there was all this stuff that didn’t make sense. Here she was, with all that money, all those horses, all those gorgeous [riding] clothes — but she wasn’t a bit classy. She looked rough. She had those big buck teeth of hers, she never wore makeup, she wore her hair pulled back like this… ”
And there were other things, she says.
“I knew she worked for an insurance company. She never talked about it or anything, but I had her number at work. And anytime I’d call, she’d always answer the same: ‘Laura Shaw, Claims.’ I thought that was weird. Here was this millionaire horse lady, working in a claims department. Makes you wonder. But I try to never ask questions — not as long as they pay their bills. And she paid.”
The year after they met, Laura Shaw invited Lillian to a Christmas party at her house, in Marshfield, Massachusetts, on a cul-de-sac off a thickly settled country road.
“I don’t know what I expected, but not that. Here was this little cottage [in Marshfield] with these two little bedrooms. Rented. This little old rented cottage that was only barely big enough to walk around in. And nobody else. No friends, no neighbors. Just Rob [Turner] and his wife, me and my boyfriend, and Laura and her mom. That was it. And all we talked about, the whole night — just horses, nothing else.”
Laura’s mother was another matter. Nell Shaw, by all accounts, was a stylish woman — or did her best to be. Small and frail-seeming, she was in her late sixties, with gray hair, stooped shoulders, and a halting, uncertain walk. But she had a presence. She was a talker, a joiner: she liked people. She lived in the moment and was happiest when the moment was hers. She was fond of her evening cocktail. She had a taste for mink.
“A fun person,” Rob Turner says of her. “A classy lady, and she liked her alcohol.” His wife, Hazel, puts it differently. “She wasn’t like Laura. She wore the money well.”
Mother and daughter were inseparable. Whether by choice or necessity, it was never quite clear.
“Where one went, the other went,” says Lillian Gilpin. “She’d come here with Laura for the lessons and just sit over there and watch. It was all they had, all they did. They’d be in New Hampshire with Rob on the weekends, then here three afternoons a week after Laura got off work. I don’t think Nell cared one way or another about the horses, but it seemed like she was happy that Laura was living her dream.”
By this time, the winter of 1995-96 Laura Shaw owned 25 horses, most of them stabled at Rob Turner’s barn, and had bought and sold roughly 30 more. In the small, circumscribed world of show-horse owners, she was a medium-to-major player, with one certified champion to her name — Shelby Stonewall, a once-and-future third-place finisher in the three-gaited Grand Championship at Louisville’s Kentucky Stale Fair. Several others had won ribbons at smaller events — the Eastern States Exposition, the Devon Horse Show, the Syracuse International, Virginia’s Bonnie Blue — but nearly always, as with “Shelby,” with Rob Turner at the reins.
Laura wanted her own horse. Her own honors. More than anything else she had ever wanted — and there is no one who knows her who doesn’t say the same — she wanted to ride in a big-event showring, on the back of a three-gaited champion, and drink in the cheers of a packed-full arena when the judges named her the best.
It’s impossible to know where she came by her dream. She said nothing of its origins to anyone she knew. Even those closest to her in the horse business — Turner, Gilpin, a magazine photographer named Maureen Jenner, and two or three more knew only that she had been born somewhere in Kentucky. had a grown son by a man she never mentioned, a day job in a Boston insurance firm, and a mother who almost never left her side. And that she was rich. And that to bring up any subject more personal than horses was, as Lillian Gilpin puts it. “to get this big, dead stare.”
But maybe — and it is only one theory — maybe it had nothing to do with horses at all: “Laura Shaw is a very sad person,” says Bridget Parker, a Kentucky trainer who knows her, knows Rob Turner, and sold her at least one horse. “There’s no question she loved the horses. But she loved the attention more …. She’s the sort of person, well, it could have been anything: dogs, [antique] dolls, just about anything at all. She’s a sad, needy person. If someone pays her the attention, makes her feel important — that ‘s all that has ever mattered to her.”
When she wasn’t working, or taking lessons, or in New Hampshire with her horses (she had rented a small place near Rob Turner ‘s farm), she was coming or going from shows. Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, New York. Sometimes she drove and stayed in a camper; other times she flew and lived in hotels. It’s hard to imagine how she managed it. When someone would ask how she balanced her job with travel, she would answer only that she “planned out the year in advance.”
Nearly always, her mother was with her. And so was Rob Turner, whose job it was to stable and care for the horses, then to show them in the evening or afternoon events. If it was Kentucky, it might be the state fairgrounds auditorium or Lexington’s Big Red Mile; at the smaller shows, there would be tents pitched around showrings, with the judges at long ringside tables and the audience in sun hats, bright jackets, and dresses behind them in the stands. The prize money was a pittance: $50 or $60 for a small-event win, a few thousand for a grand championship — but it was never, even remotely, the point.
A top-level saddlebred horse show is as arcane, as regimented, yet as honestly elegant, as any spectacle in sports. To the first-timer, it would seem foppish, even comic, and utterly beyond understanding: a tentful of overdressed, overserious people sitting around watching horses doing double-jointed things with their legs. To the true saddlebred lover, a three-gaited champion, in seamless transition from walk to trot to canter — head high, left foreleg raised and stretched impossibly, bent downward at the joint as though there were elastic in there, its rider erect and unmoving, in perfect fusion with her mount — is no less sublime than ballet.
Somewhere, somehow, Laura Shaw had come to this vision of things. Perhaps it was the horse magazines she pored over or that she ‘d been born in Kentucky and was seeking some link to her roots. It’s hard to know. But one thing is clear: that perfection on horseback and the world that it opened were, to her thinking, the only truths that held weight.
In March of 1995, after only nine months of lessons, Laura rode New Trial for the first time in a show, the three-gaited Ladies’ Class at the Bonnie Blue National in Virginia. Lillian Gilpin hadn’t felt she was ready. “She still rode rough, she still wasn’t pretty.” She’d finished third in a field of six, won $25 and a yellow ribbon. It was a start.
She was easing off on the horse buying: only six horses each in 1995 and 1996. Her focus was the riding now. In November of 1995, she showed New Trial a second time: in the three-gaited Amateur Championship at the Children’s Benefit in Pennsylvania. She finished second in a field of five. She was ecstatic. Her next target, she told Rob Turner, would be the three-gaited Ladies’ at the Roanoke Valley in January of 1996: and a month after that, her biggest test yet: the United Professional Horsemen’s Association Amateur Spring Championship in Massachusetts.
She and Rob Turner had become close. Part of it was business. Most of her horses were stabled at his barn; she accounted for close to half his income, more than $3,000 per month in boarding fees alone. And there was Shelby Stonewall, her champion gelding that Rob just kept riding to wins — 28 first-place finishes in 41 events, before Shelby would be retired, at 15, in the spring of 1997. But it was more than just that. “She needed a lot of attention,” he says. “You could see she was lonely, that she needed companionship, that she had no other life. She’d be here on the weekends with her mother; then we’d do the shows. Then during the week she’d always be calling, sometimes four or five times in a day. It got kind of exhausting. But I knew she was lonely. And she spent a lot of money. And I guess I felt sorry for her.”
Rob’s wife, Hazel, is blunter: “She acted like Rob was her boyfriend. I think, to herself, she pretended he was.”
That December was the Christmas, party at the little house in Marshfield, with just the six of them. Nell was in a gay mood — looking forward, she said, to next month’s trip to the Roanoke Valley; the people in Virginia were always so friendly, it was such a lovely state. Laura talked with Rob about New Trial and about Town Memories, a five-year-old mare she’d just bought. Her son, Mark, made a brief appearance but was on his way to meet someone and said he couldn’t stay. It was an early night.
They shipped New Trial to Virginia a day or two ahead. Laura was nervous. She fretted about the weather, New Trial’s grooming, the judges, her clothes. She had picked out her outfit: a dark-tan riding coat with a flare in the back, matching jodhpurs, a blue-on-gray tie, and a black derby hat. (It would be an afternoon event. Tuxedo and silk top hat apply only after six.)
Laura was up at dawn the morning of the show — as she was most mornings in those days — in the stall with New Trial and Shelby Stonewall, who likewise would be showing that day. (Shelby would finish first out of five entries, with Rob Turner riding, in the three-gaited open event.) She scarcely left the barns all day. Her mother, who had met some friends the night before, came and went.
She got a smooth ride from New Trial, who was at his best that day. So was Laura. She sat straight and unmoving, kept her eyes fast forward and her hands held high on the reins. “She rode pretty,” as Lillian would say. There was applause. Then she waited five minutes, stared hard at the ground as there came the judges’ voting, and learned that she had won.
Five weeks later, at the UPHA three-gaited Amateur Championship — her biggest show ever, with ten entries contesting — she won again. Two championship points and $100 in cash. Her first win with a champion, a pinnacle.
That was the high point. There were other shows after that and other wins. But when you look at the record of things after that wonderful, winning winter of 1995-96, it seems as though life, for Laura, began about then to turn sour and sad.
Relations with the Turners were growing more brittle by the week. “She was just getting too close,” says Rob Turner. “Wanting too much.She knew too much about my business and too much about my life.”
That’s all he’ll say, though Hazel Turner adds that “there was lots of fighting, fighting going on, lots of screaming, and a couple of times she threatened to leave.” She remembers one incident, at a show in Massachusetts when Laura “threw a tantrum, just threw herself on the ground.”
In August of 1996, Laura took her horses and departed Rob Turner’s farm — taking all except Shelby Stonewall, whom she left behind as a gift. He was 14 years old at the time.
“I considered her a friend,” says Rob today. “I thought I knew her pretty well. I guess I was wrong about that.”
Laura showed New Trial for the final time at the Children’s Benefit in November. They won together. She sold him three months after that.
She moved her other horses to Danville, Kentucky, to the farm of an older trainer, Bill Wise, who’d earned most of his reputation a generation before, with a national five-gaited champion named Sure Fire. She bought five saddlebreds under his guidance and showed at least two of them. She began spending more time in Kentucky, where she also took up golf. She and Bill Wise played often together in the dead time during shows.
“Kentucky was the big leagues,” says Rob Turner.” I think she got attracted to that, I know her mother did.”
Bill Wise won’t talk publicly about Laura anymore. It is his wife who answers the phone. “Laura spent a lot of time in our home,” she says. “We were very fond of her. I’m sorry, but that’s all I have to say.”
Then, in the winter of 1997, Nell Shaw was diagnosed with cancer. It spread quickly. She died, at home in Marshfield, in May of 1998. Then came the end.
December 17, 1998, a Thursday. Laura Shaw was in her cubicle at New England Financial, in an old, marble-lobbied building in downtown Boston that its denizens call the “Burial Urn.” She had come dressed for the company’s Christmas party, which was to take place at the end of that day. She got a call to come to her boss’s office. It’s likely she knew why.
The FBI was waiting. They showed her the canceled checks: $14,239, $16,630, $25,219, made out to the phony claimants — Jeanne Davidson, James Emory, James Worth. Dozens of them. More than $4 million, they said, embezzled over nearly 11 years.
She had begun in February 1988, with a false claim of $2,493, drawn on an older policy, which was processed manually at the time. It had been easy. Her pace picked up; the checks grew larger: $39,000 by the end of 1988, an average of $400,000 a year in the ten years after that.
No one had noticed. It might have gone on forever. But in December of 1998, she slipped: a paperwork error, a check canceled, then — unbelievably — redeposited. When it bounced — New England Financial checks do not bounce — the FBI was called in.
By that time, her mother was dead, relations with the Turners had ended, New Trial was gone, the stream of checks had slowed, and then the dumbest of dumb mistakes. It’s tempting to believe that Laura Shaw just wanted it over, that the deception had grown too heavy too carry, that ten years of two lives in the end just wore her out.
Briefly she denied it. Then she confessed. Those who questioned her reported that she seemed relieved.
“Around the horse industry, I guess I was just — I was — I felt like a human being,” she told the sentencing judge in federal courts in Boston last September 9. “I was accepted . . . just an inward feeling of . . . just peace. I mean, there’ s . . . I guess you have to be a horse person to understand, and it ‘s five o’clock in the morning and you’ re out there …
“I love horses. They were living things. They were my total responsibility. I couldn’t just walk away …. ”
Her lawyer, federal public defender Stephanie A. Jirard, appealed to the judge for a brief sentence. She spoke of a “significantly reduced mental capacity” that was the result of the “alternatively symbiotic and parasitic relationship” between Laura and her mother. She asked for clemency in view of Laura’s “exceptional degree of responsibility in confessing to her crime.”
Judge William G. Young would have none of it. This was “typical, garden-variety embezzlement,” he said, then sentenced her to 3-1/2 years.
“I did it,” Laura told an AP reporter before her sentencing last September. “I’ll pay the price. The old life is finished now. The horses are all gone.” It was, outside of her courtroom statement, the only time she has ever spoken publicly about any aspect of her crime.
Laura Shaw today is an inmate in the Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, Connecticut. Through her lawyer and later through prison officials, she has declined all requests for interviews and has reportedly asked those who know her to do the same. Most of them have complied; it’s not hard to see why. The saddlebred world is small, rarefied, and in general closed to outsiders. Laura, in the eyes of most of them, is an embarrassment — who, in the words of Bridget Parker, “has made a mockery of what we do.”
And so her story has holes. Unanswered questions, problems with emphasis, unaccounted-for periods of time. Because one trainer, for instance, was willing to talk and a second was not, the importance, of the first may seem outsized. How it was, exactly, will probably never be explained.
Who is the real Laura Shaw? How did she come by her dream? Is her contrition genuine? What is known, beyond what has been told already — however imperfectly — is only this: Her house in Marshfield — a weathered Cape with a small, overgrown garden — is still in her name as tenant; her son, Mark, as of last December, was living there alone with an unlisted telephone.
Her horses were signed over to New England Financial, then put up for sale through an auctioneer; most, by now, have been sold. Shelby Stonewall remains with Rob Turner. He is 18 now; his showing days are done.
The memories and judgments of others are mixed. Lillian Gilpin is happy that Laura “finally learned to ride pretty” and that she “enjoyed ten wonderful years.” Rob Turner recalls her now as “a sad, lonely woman who had only horses as friends.” Bridget Parker’s view is simpler: “A thief is a thief. It ‘s just a matter of what you steal.”
It’s hard to guess what will become of her. She is 48 years old. With time off for good behavior, she’ll be a 50-year-old ex-felon — broke, jobless, and largely alone in the world the day they turn her loose.
“I’ve been embarrassed,” she told the judge at her sentencing. ” I’ve embarrassed my son … I have no retirement. I will have some kind of civil judgment against me. I will never be able to work in my profession again ….”‘
Laura Gilpin, at least, doesn’t see it that way:
“She loves the horses. She’s good with them, they’re all she knows. She’ll be shoveling shit somewhere.”‘
Excerpt from “’The Double Life of Laura Shaw,”
Yankee Magazine, May 2000.