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Blood Money
William Nack
November 16, 1992
In the rich, clubby world of horsemen, some greedy owners have hired killers to murder their animals for the insurance payoffs
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November 16, 1992

Blood Money

In the rich, clubby world of horsemen, some greedy owners have hired killers to murder their animals for the insurance payoffs

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The powerfully built Arlie appeared behind Streetwise's right rear leg, a crowbar in his hand. Arlie swung the bar like a baseball bat, and agents across the highway could hear a crack. Neighing loudly, in a high, panicky scream, Streetwise began thrashing on his dangling leg, fell to the ground as a stunned Burns hung onto the lead—"I'd never seen anything like it; the horse went into shock," he says—and then scrambled back to his feet. The keening horse tore the shank from Burns's hand and took off around the stable, disappearing in the night, falling again, bellowing, only a sound now, an echo behind the barn now, in the dark now, in the quiet rain.

Tommy Burns punched numbers on a cellular phone, calling Donna Brown in West Palm Beach to inform her of events. Meanwhile Arlie informed Carlie Ferguson, president of Canterbury Farms, who summoned a vet. The vet phoned Brown, and on her instructions he called the insurance company on its 800 emergency number. Of course, the company authorized immediate euthanasia for the suffering animal. Moments after arriving on the scene, the vet put the horse down.

Burns and Arlie did not get far. After the death of Streetwise, Burns fired up the rig and took off. But two miles down Route 26, Florida Highway Patrol cars converged on the van from all directions. "They were even coming out of dirt roads," says Burns. He made a run for it, but he was quickly subdued, handcuffed and arrested at shotgun point. "What were you guys doing at the farm?" a cop yelled in Burns's ear.

They had him cold. Agricultural investigators found the crowbar and the electrocution wires in Burns's white pickup. An accomplice who had helped to load the horses at the scene, Chad Sondell, said in a sworn statement to state investigators that Burns and Arlie had told him they were to be paid $5,000 by Brown to kill Streetwise. Arlie confirmed Sondell's story, according to police reports, and admitted having struck Streetwise with the crowbar. Arlie soon pleaded guilty to charges of insurance fraud and cruelty to animals, and he eventually served six months of an 18-month sentence before being paroled.

Federal authorities had been investigating Burns for months—it was they who had tipped the Florida agricultural department that the Sandman was heading south with a potential victim in his van—and Burns's arrest turned out to be the major break in what had become a difficult collection of cases to crack.

Underscoring the importance of the arrest, an FBI agent and a top Justice Department prosecutor from Chicago, Steve Miller, descended on Gainesville only hours after Burns was taken into custody. Caught in the act, incriminated by Arlie and Sondell and facing certain conviction and a jail term on charges of insurance fraud and cruelty to animals. Burns decided to cooperate with federal prosecutors. He spent three weeks in jail, and after the Alachua County Circuit Court finally released him on $100,000 cash bail—under an order that he stay away from horses—he returned to Chicago, where he began cooperating with a grand jury that has been looking into the killing of horses for insurance money.

Burns quickly unraveled his sordid tale to law-enforcement officials, giving names, places and dates from his history as a professional horse-killer and a co-conspirator in cases of insurance fraud. Burns faces sentencing Dec. 14 in the case involving Streetwise, and he expects the feds to seek leniency on his behalf on grounds that he is a key government witness in what has become an investigation of stunning scope.

"Tommy Burns turns out to be the tip of the iceberg," one federal agent says. In the next few weeks, as agents from the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms wind up their investigations, sources estimate that as many as 40 owners, trainers, veterinarians and riders will be indicted on various charges related to the killing of horses for insurance payments. Law-enforcement officials are piecing together felony fraud cases against the owners and trainers who hired Burns, and they're tracking down itinerant stable hands and grooms who can confirm details of the killings that the Sandman carried out for their bosses. The inquiries have led agents on a long, circuitous trail from one scene of electrocution to the next, and along the way investigators have picked up leads on other insurance-related deaths not involving Burns and on still other crimes that include suspicious stable fires and the fraudulent sale of overvalued horses.

In the 21 months since Burns's arrest, investigators have developed hard evidence that such crimes have not been confined to the show-horse business and that Burns is not the only hit man working expensive stables. During that time the investigators have concluded that killing horses for insurance claims is business as usual at all levels in the world of show horses.

This phenomenon is hardly new, nor is it confined to jumpers and hunters. Twenty years ago, at some prominent thoroughbred racetrack barns, animals were dying at such an alarming rate that insurance companies were refusing to insure the trainers' horses. At one Belmont Park barn where horses were expiring mysteriously in the night, cynical grooms would show up in the morning and ask, "Anyone die last night?"

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