On the rainy night of Feb. 2, 1991, in despair over the prospect of causing the death of a horse by breaking its hind leg with a crowbar, Tommy (the Sandman) Burns sat in a bar outside Gainesville, Fla., and got drunk on gin and tonic. "Really wasted," Burns recalls. "I had never done one like that before."
For a decade the cherubic 30-year-old had made a sporadic living as a hit man hired to destroy expensive horses and ponies, usually so their owners could collect on lucrative life-insurance policies. But no owner had ever ordered Burns to dispose of a horse by breaking one of its legs—that is, by causing a trauma so severe that a veterinarian would be forced to put the animal down with a lethal injection.
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.
"You better get out of the way," says Burns. "They go down immediately. One horse dropped so fast in the stall, he must have broken his neck when he hit the floor. It's a sick thing, I know, but it was quick and it was painless. They didn't suffer." And it was, for the collection of insurance claims, an ideal method of execution. According to doctors at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, one of the nation's leading large-animal hospitals, even the most-experienced pathologist would be unlikely to detect signs of death by electrocution—unless, perchance, the pathologist was looking for it and the clips happened to leave singe marks. Many of the horses Burns electrocuted were assumed to have died of colic.
So Tommy Burns (a.k.a. Timmy Robert Ray), who had worked around horses since he had run away from home in Connecticut at the age of 15, became a serial killer of horses and got away with it for 10 years. According to federal agents, Burns destroyed some 20 horses, mostly show jumpers and hunters, on the show-horse circuit from Florida to Vermont to Illinois. "In 1989 it got crazy," Burns says. "I killed three horses in one week." Indeed, toting the canvas athletic bag in which he hid his deadly wires, Burns became such a regular presence among the wealthy show-horse crowds that he earned a sobriquet of which he would remain, until recently, unaware. "People knew what was going on," says a prominent West Virginia horsewoman. "When Tommy arrived at a show, they would say the Sandman was around. They knew a horse would be put to sleep." In almost every ease, something about a horse—its performance, its health, its age—had made the unthinkable occur to its owner.
By that night of Feb. 2, Burns had, by his own admission, run "hard and wild for 10 years." A few days earlier he and his associate, Harlow Arlie, had driven a vanload of show horses from their base in northern Illinois to Canterbury Farms in Florida. Among the equine passengers was Streetwise, a sporty chestnut jumper with a white stocking on each leg, a blaze on its face and a $25,000 insurance policy on its life. Burns has told federal investigators that the 7-year-old gelding's owner, Donna Brown, a prominent horsewoman on the clubby show-horse circuit, had hired him for $5,000 to arrange a fatal accident for Streetwise. According to Burns, the insurance policy did not cover death by colic—Streetwise had a history of colic, a life-threatening condition in a horse—so Brown insisted that he break the animal's leg.
"I don't want to break his leg," Burns, at the bar near Gainesville, sang to Arlie in his executioner's song. "I'm not into that."
"I'll do it," Burns says Arlie told him. "For half your fee."
The two men left the bar and returned to Canterbury. Burns figured the rain that night would make the perfect alibi: They were loading Streetwise into the van when the horse slipped, fell off the ramp and broke its leg. At about 10:10 p.m., after helping to load three other horses into the van for a trip south to West Palm Beach, Burns stood in the middle of a brightly lighted lot and held a lead shank tethered to Streetwise's halter.
Unbeknownst to Burns, investigators for the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services, acting on a tip, had been following his van ever since it had rolled into Florida, and on this night they were staking out the farm. One of the investigators, Harold Barry, lay flat and still on the top of a beat-up horse trailer less than 100 yards away, watching helplessly as the dark, rain-swept scene suddenly turned from eerie to macabre.