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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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Agents are also following up Burns's account of the death of a show horse named Rainman. His owner, Chicago businessman Allen Levinson, collected a $50,000 insurance policy on Rainman's death, but he denies any wrongdoing. "I have never heard of Tommy Burns," Levinson says. "I was trying to sell that horse. I had it sold for more money than the insurance policy. There was a complete autopsy."

For the agents, investigating horse killings has been a difficult, unfamiliar experience. Only rarely has there been a body on which to perform a necropsy, as there was in the case of Streetwise; the carcasses usually have been lost to the rendering plants. So this has been in good part a paper chase. In some cases agents have served subpoenas on claims adjusters who had long before paid the owners for their losses. But the owners' files and personal financial records have been valuable, frequently confirming details of Burns's story of a horse's death—including in some cases the exact barn and stall where it occurred.

In fact, investigators have been struck by the ease with which they were able to follow the paper trail that some of Burns's clients left behind. Burns's presence on the circuit and the things that tended to happen when he was around became so accepted that he was treated like the feedman or the farrier. His employers frequently paid him with personal checks and sometimes with cashier's checks purchased at their banks.

Even federal agents, who thought they had seen everything, were shocked by the insouciance of some of those who dealt with Burns. Burns recalls one woman's approach to him at a horse show: "She said, 'Do you think you could kill my horse for $10,000?' So I did. She bought another horse with the insurance money and came up to me two months later and asked me to kill her new horse. She didn't like it."

There is a troubling banality about the evil at work in these cases. "We are dealing with a way of life here." one investigator said. "These people thought they had some sort of right to do these things."

Largely because of the nature of the crime ("These animals are so vulnerable that I'd compare it almost to hurting children," says Florida agriculture commissioner Bob Crawford), some law-enforcement officials have pursued the investigation with an inspired intensity. "This is a case where you can lose your detachment," says one federal agent. "These were beautiful animals. They were standing there helpless in their stalls. Most of these people had plenty of money. So you get outraged. And you work a little harder."

Burns knows better than anyone how the horses were standing in their stalls, wearing their halters and alligator clips and watching him curiously, like deer in a clearing, as he stepped outside and moved for the socket. He wants it known, as he has been telling the feds, that he wasn't there on his own. "I was not alone in all of this," he says. "I feel terrible about what I did. But I did not advertise. I did not do any sales calls. People found me and came to me. Very important people. Very wealthy people. They came to me because they somehow knew that I might be willing to do something they wanted done. They wanted these horses dead."

What the clients wanted, the clients got. However well he warbles, Burns knows he will do some jail time, just as he knows there will be no escaping, ever, what he did for so long with his life. There's no escaping that night in Florida, in the dark, in the rain, and the sight of Arlie with the crowbar, and the crack and the screams, the horse falling and thrashing, rising and running. Burns can still hear the cops yelling at him after his arrest: "You killed all those horses, and we know you did!"

"They were right," says Tommy Burns.

They always will be. That is his sentence.

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