The horse murders scandal refers to cases of insurance fraud in the United States in which expensive horses, many of them show jumpers, were insured against death, accident, or disease, and then killed to collect the insurance money. It is not known how many horses were killed in this manner between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, when a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigation brought the horse killings to light, but the number is thought to be well over 50, and may have been as high as 100. In addition, in 1977, the heiress Helen Brach disappeared and was presumed by law enforcement agents to have been murdered by the perpetrators of these crimes, because she threatened to report their criminal activity to authorities; continuing investigations into Brach's death began to uncover the insurance fraud in the 1990s.
Thirty-six people were indicted and tried for insurance fraud, mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice, extortion, racketeering, and animal cruelty in connection with the horse murders; 35 were convicted. Of the 23 people indicted in Chicago in July 1994, 20 pleaded guilty.
Over the 20-year period during which the horse murders took place, several different motivations led horse owners and trainers, often affluent and well-respected people, to become involved in what ultimately became a widespread conspiracy.
In some cases, the owner of a promising, or even prize-winning, horse was temporarily strapped for cash and decided to insure and then kill the animal; this was the situation in the 1982 murder of the show jumper Henry the Hawk.
Sometimes people bought over-valued horses. Rather than take a loss on a poor investment, these owners chose to finance their next horse purchase by defrauding the insurance company that had insured the unwanted horse.
Another aspect to the scandal went beyond insurance fraud and involved racketeering. This scheme, a form of confidence game, consisted of bilking wealthy widows of their money by encouraging them to invest in horses. The animals were usually over-valued or under-performing, and the conspirators killed the animals in order to prevent the owners from uncovering how much they had overspent. In some cases, before the women invested, these non-performing animals were first "bid up" in value by the co-conspirators, in an attempt to make them seem more desirable to the purchasers. In other cases, a shill buyer would offer to co-purchase the horse from a conspiring owner or trainer, with each buyer putting up half the stated purchase price. The check from the shill buyer would be destroyed and the two con artists would deposit and split the money paid by the wealthy woman buyer. If she began to suspect that the horse she had purchased was relatively valueless, it would be killed for the insurance money, which would soothe her financially, and if the conspirators still had her confidence, she would then be encouraged to invest in another co-owned horse, repeating the cycle. The men who worked this form of confidence game often acted as gigolos to the widows they bilked. It was one of these schemes that the wealthy widow Helen Brach uncovered, and — when she announced her intention to report the fraud that had been perpetrated on her — led to her disappearance and murder.
Drucks' Henry the Hawk
In 1981, 17-year-old Lisa Druck of Ocala, Florida (now known as Rielle Hunter) owned and rode a show horse named Henry the Hawk. Because Lisa (born June 6, 1964) was underage, her finances were controlled by her father, James Druck, an attorney and owner of Eagle Nest Farm. Druck's legal practice consisted of defending insurance companies against claims, and he knew that if a horse were electrocuted in a certain manner, it would be very difficult for a veterinary pathologist to find signs of foul play and the death would be chalked up to colic. According to ABC News, Lisa was "a prize-winning equestrian when her father was implicated in an insidious plot to electrocute horses for insurance money."
In the early 1990s, following James Druck's death, convicted horse-killer and FBI informant Tommy Burns told authorities and reporters that James Druck had first attempted to sell his daughter's horse for $150,000, but the highest offer he received was only $125,000. He then hired Burns and personally taught him how to electrocute horses, even going so far as to buy Burns' first set of electrocution tools. The first horse that Druck hired Burns to kill was Henry the Hawk, whose life insurance policy was worth $150,000. James Druck thus started Tommy Burns on a 10-year-long career as a "horse murderer".
James Druck collected on a $150,000 insurance policy for arranging the killing of his daughter's horse in 1982, but he was under investigation by the FBI when he died of cancer in Tampa, Florida in 1990.
The wealthy socialite Helen Brach was another prominent victim. Brach was a millionaire candy company heiress and animal lover who vanished in 1977 at the age of 65. While her body was never found, she was declared dead in 1984. Investigators suspected that she was murdered because she threatened to reveal what she knew about the over-valuing of horses, which would have led authorities to the string of horse killings perpetrated by Richard Bailey, a man who was later indicted for a role in her murder.
|“||Helen Vorhees Brach, millionaire heiress to the Brach's Confections fortune, was one of Bailey's victims. She met Bailey in 1973 and they entered into a relationship. In 1975, Bailey's brother, Paul, sold her three horses for $98,000; unknown to Brach, Bailey also participated in the sale, and the horses were worth less than $20,000. Additionally, Brach bought a group of expensive brood mares. On New Year's Eve 1977, Brach and Bailey 'danced the night away' at New York's Waldorf-Astoria, but their relationship soon began to deteriorate. Early in 1977, Bailey and a co-conspirator arranged an extensive showing for Brach, hoping to persuade her to invest $150,000 in more horses. Brach left in less than an hour. Further, an appraiser Brach hired recommended she invest nothing in training one of her original three purchases, contrary to the $50,000 estimate of the trainer recommended by Bailey. Around this time Brach also visited her breeding stock. After viewing the mares, she openly displayed rage at the stables, screaming about being cheated and informing anyone within earshot that she was going to the district attorney's office. Subsequently, she told a close friend that she was disturbed about her purchase of horses from a younger man whom she had been seeing (Bailey), and after hearing that her friend knew state prosecutors, she agreed to visit the State's Attorney's office after she returned from her upcoming visit to the Mayo Clinic. Brach departed from the Mayo Clinic on February 17, 1977. She was never seen again, and her body has never been found. Bailey was interviewed in connection with her disappearance but no charges were filed at the time.||”|
In 1984, seven years after she disappeared, Helen Brach was declared legally dead. In 1997, the connections between her death and the conspiracy involving socially prominent horse owners and their hired horse killers became the subject of a true crime book, Hot Blood: The Money, the Brach Heiress, the Horse Murders, written by Ken Englade.
The horse killers
Tommy "The Sandman" Burns (a.k.a. Timmy Robert Ray) earned his nickname because he "put horses to sleep" for the conspirators. He traveled the show circuit, visiting stables with his athletic bag full of electrocution equipment and, for fees ranging from $5,000 to $40,000 — generally for 10 percent of the insurance price on the horse — he would kill horses for their owners, who would then pay him off from the money obtained by defrauding the insurers. Burns justified his destruction of the animals on the grounds that electrocution — the technique that he had learned in 1982 from James Druck — was quick and painless.
In 1992, the investigative reporters William Nack and Lester Munson, writing for Sports Illustrated, interviewed Burns, who told them a great deal about how the conspiracy operated:
|“||Burns's preferred method of killing horses was electrocution. It had been so ever since the day in 1982 when, he says, the late James Druck, an Ocala, Fla., attorney who represented insurance companies, paid him to kill the brilliant show jumper Henry the Hawk, on whose life Druck had taken out a $150,000 life-insurance policy. In fact, says Burns, Druck personally taught him how to rig the wires to electrocute Henry the Hawk: how to slice an extension cord down the middle into two strands of wire; how to attach a pair of alligator clips to the bare end of each wire; and how to attach the clips to the horse—one to its ear, the other to its rectum. All he had to do then, says Burns, was plug the cord into a standard wall socket. And step back.||”|
In 1989, Burns was hired to kill a jumper horse named Streetwise. This horse was owned by the former U.S. Olympic rider Buddy Brown, who had once been a trainer at Paul Valliere's farm in Rhode Island. Because the animal had already suffered from colic and thus could not be insured against that disease, electrocution was ruled out as a method of murder. Brown's wife, Donna Brown, insisted that Burns break the animal's leg and make it look like an accident so that the horse would have to be put down by a vet. Burns decided to sub-contract the deed to a man named Harlow Arlie, who was willing to cripple the horse with a crowbar.
By this time, the FBI had Burns under surveillance, and although the agents were too far away to prevent the fatal injury to Streetwise, they were able to capture Burns and Arlie after a short chase. The two men confessed to the crime, and Burns, in retaliation for being left without legal aid by his powerful former employers, turned FBI informant and revealed the names of dozens of people who had hired him. As a result of his confession, 36 people were arrested for animal cruelty and insurance fraud, of whom 35 were convicted.
Burns, who revealed the names of many other conspirators, was sentenced to a year in jail for his crimes, including breaking Streetwise's leg; he served six months. He still resides in Florida, where he has legally changed his name to Tim Ray; he currently sells auto parts for a living.
Not only electrocution and leg-breaking were employed as methods to kill insured horses. When arson looked profitable, an entire stable could be burned to the ground, to collect on the building insurance as well as the horse insurance. Richard Bailey, who feuded with his brother, and Frank Jayne and his family, were said to have left "a trail of violence" in the horse-club world of the upper Midwest states of Illinois and Wisconsin over the course of decades.
Horse trainers also participated along with Burns in the conspiracy, including Paul Valliere, the owner of Acres Wild Farm in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. In 1994, Valliere admitted that he hired Burns to electrocute his show horse, Roseau Platiere, so that he could collect $75,000 in insurance money. Once he was apprehended, Valliere turned state's evidence. He wore a wire for a year, gathering information for the federal authorities who were investigating the conspiracy.
Due to his cooperation with law enforcement, Paul Valliere was sentenced in 1996 to four years of probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine; he also was indefinitely suspended from participating in horse shows sanctioned by the American Horse Show Association. In 2006, Valliere attempted to gain reinstatement to the United States Equestrian Federation (formerly AHSA) causing outrage among those who recalled his crimes, and sparking an online campaign to have him permanently barred from participation in equestrian events.
One of Valliere's close friends, the Rhode Island-born trainer Barney Ward, who owned Castle Hill farm in Brewster, New York, also arranged horse-killings for wealthy owners; Burns said Ward arranged for Burns to commit 15 horse killings.
Ward was charged in 1994 with arranging the killings of four horses. Although he claimed to be innocent of the charges, he pleaded guilty in 1996 to conspiring to kill four horses for their insurance payouts between 1987 and 1990: Charisma, Condino, Rub the Lamp and Roseau Platiere. In court papers he "admitted that he told the horse killer to keep quiet about the people who hired the killer to slaughter the horses, and, if he kept quiet about [Ward's] friends and business associates, [Ward] would pay him money. [and] that [Ward] later spoke with the horse killer and [...] said that he would kill the horse killer if he did anything to hurt [Ward]."
Ward was sentenced to 33 months in prison, followed by three years of probation, and ordered to make restitution of $200,000 to one of the defrauded insurance companies. Upon his release, Ward sued the AHSA, which had barred him from attending its sanctioned shows. He claimed that it was his right, as a private citizen and no longer a member of the AHSA, to watch his son compete in equestrian events. In 2000, the Supreme Court of New York found that argument meritless, ruling that Ward's membership in AHSA at the time of his criminal conduct, plus his promise to be bound by the organization's rules, authorized the AHSA to discipline him, regardless of his current membership status.
Donna Brown, the wife of Paul Valliere's former associate Buddy Brown, was convicted of hiring Tommy Burns and Harlow Arlie to break Streetwise's leg.
In 1993 Jane F. Clark, president of the 60,000-member United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), then known as the American Horse Shows Association (AHSA), which sanctioned 2,500 equestrian events, told The New York Times that her organization was giving federal authorities its complete cooperation and noted that she was "eager to see the investigation completed and any guilty parties brought to justice." By 1995, the AHSA (now USEF) had expelled a number of members who had been indicted for various crimes connected with the horse murders, including Marion Hulick, Barney Ward, and Paul Valliere.
A literary parallel
In 1988 — long before the arrest of Tommy Burns and the subsequent unraveling of the horse murders conspiracy of silence — "Brat Pack" novelist Jay McInerney based a roman à clef novel, titled Story of My Life, on the young adulthood of his former girlfriend Lisa Druck, James Druck's daughter. McInerney's novel implies that the cause of protagonist Alison Poole's "party girl" behavior is her father's abuse, including the murder of her prize jumping horse.
McInerney has said that he chose to write about Druck and her friends because he was both "intrigued and appalled" by their behavior, and the lead character, Alison Poole, who was closely modeled after Druck, was described as "an ostensibly jaded, cocaine-addled, sexually voracious 20-year old." Story of My Life opens with Alison Poole's description of her father and her seemingly casual comment that she gave up riding when her horse — called "Dangerous Dan" in the story — suddenly "dropped dead," details that closely parallel Lisa Druck's early life.
|“||I'm like, I don't believe this shit. … [Dad] buys his new bimbo Tanya who's a year younger than me a 450 SL convertible — always gone for the young ones, haven't we, Dad? — plus her own condo … My old man is fifty going on twelve. … Nothing my father does surprises me anymore. … My parents have seven marriages between them … Acting is the first thing I ever really wanted to do. Except for riding. When I was a kid I spent most of my time on horseback. I went around the country showing my horses and jumping, until Dangerous Dan dropped dead. I loved Dan more than just about any living thing since and that was it for me and horses.||”|
In the novel, Allison Poole's horse is poisoned, not electrocuted, but at the end of the story, the orchestrator of the murder, just as in Druck's actual life, is revealed to have been the young woman's father:
|“||I loved that horse. ... When he was poisoned I went into shock. They kept me on tranquilizers for a week. There was an investigation — nothing came of it. The insurance company paid off in full, but I quit riding. A few months later, Dad came into my bedroom one night. I was like, uh-oh, not this again. He buried his face in my shoulder. His cheek was wet and he smelled of booze. I'm sorry about Dangerous Dan, he said. Tell me you forgive me.||”|
There was open speculation that Story of My Life was a roman à clef novel when it first appeared; to New York Magazine's questions "Is it real? Did it happen?" McInerney replied, "I'm anticipating some of that kind of speculation, but I'm utterly confident of not having any lawsuits on my hands. The book is a fully imagined work of fiction. On the other hand, it's not to say that I didn't make use of … That's why I live in New York. Mine is not an autonomous imagination."
McInerney's references to the horse murder conspiracy went unremarked by sports journalists or the general media at the time of the novel's publication, because the scandal itself had not yet come to light in the national press, but the novel received renewed interest in the wake of the Edwards-Hunter extramarital affair. In August 2008, Vintage Books ordered an additional 2,500 copies of the book in the wake of the interest generated by the Hunter-Edwards scandal.
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