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.
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?"
Veteran insurance adjusters say, however, that the number of suspicious claims by horse owners has increased dramatically in the years since the 1986 Tax Reform Act eliminated performance horses as depreciable assets. That "reform" and the anemic state of the economy cut the bottom out of the horse business, leaving a cash-starved industry with farms and stables struggling desperately to stay afloat.
Unlike paintings by Renoir or baseball cards bearing pictures of Honus Wagner, horses experience wild, often unforeseen fluctuations in value. Say, for instance, that a thoroughbred investor spends $500,000 for a well-built, well-bred yearling, insures him for that sum and sends him off, as a 2-year-old, to a racetrack trainer. And say that the trainer then informs the owner that the colt is so slow that he couldn't beat a $15,000 maiden claimer. Or that he is an ill-tempered, untrainable rogue. Or that he is about to bow a tendon and will never race. The humane sportsman might wince and take the loss, but more than a few others would make other arrangements. "The insurance is there, and it is very tempting," says one federal agent.
Over the last few years, says Harvey Feintuch, a New York lawyer who specializes in the investigation of equine insurance claims, "we have had a very, very significant increase in the number of claims that just don't look right."
Given the current economic climate, the sudden deaths of expensive, stall-bound horses tend to raise suspicions, even at the highest levels of the horse business. A widely respected freelance turf writer, Carol Flake, sent shudders through the thoroughbred industry when, in a meticulously reported article in the February 1992 issue of Connoisseur magazine, she raised the possibility that the death of Alydar—one of the most popular racehorses of modern times and one of the world's prepotent stallions—was not an accident (box, page 22).
In the investigation of thoroughbred fatalities, federal agents have found more than mere suspicions. In Brooklyn and South Florida, the feds say, they recently uncovered an insurance scheme that led to the death of one horse, a son of Seattle Slew named Fins, and nearly resulted in the death of another, Cutlass Reality, a New York stakes winner of $1.4 million. Prosecutors say that the scheme involved Victor Arena, the reputed head of the Colombo crime family; Howard Crash, a New York securities broker who is under indictment for bribery; and Larry Lombardo, a licensed owner and trainer of thoroughbreds who has been indicted on federal charges that he killed Fins "while making the death appear to be due to natural causes." Sources speculate that the horse was injected with parasitic bloodworms that brought on a case of thromboembolic colic, a fatal illness.
According to a 21-count indictment handed up in Miami on Aug. 4, Lombardo purchased Fins for $7,500, inflated the horse's value to $400,000 through a series of sales of phony shares, insured Fins for that amount and then collected on the policy after the horse died. Ron Rubinstein, Lombardo's defense attorney, claims that Fins died of natural causes and argues that the colt, at $400,000, was not overvalued as a breeding prospect. But Seth Hancock, the president of Claiborne Farm, which bred Fins and has been in the thoroughbred-breeding business for 80 years, said that Fins was a big, crooked-legged colt who couldn't run a lick.
Lombardo is also charged with conspiring to kill Cutlass Reality, the terrific winner of the 1988 Hollywood Gold Cup (and conqueror of the Horse of the Year, Alysheba), in an alleged insurance-fraud scheme. Crash and his former business associate Mark Hankoff—the two key government witnesses against Lombardo, according to sources close to the case—owned the horse in partnership with Lombardo and several others. What saved Cutlass Reality is unclear, but the hit was never made. "Somebody got scared and backed out," an FBI agent says. What is clear, according to the sworn testimony of an FBI agent involved in the case, is that Crash, Lombardo and Arena would have each received $1 million from the insurance settlement if the horse had been killed. Instead, Cutlass Reality will be standing stud in California next spring, servicing mares at $5,000 a pop—and that beats colic.
While the company that insured Fins had some doubts about the horse's stated value and was suspicious of the timing of the claim, which was made six months after the purchase of the policy, it nonetheless sent the $400,000 check to Lombardo and his cohorts. (Lombardo goes on trial next March 22; if convicted, he may be forced to make restitution to the insurance company.) Increasingly, however, insurance companies are balking at paying suspicious claims and are fighting them in court. The companies are also investigating suspicious claims more assiduously, looking for signs of fraud such as the bogus inflation of a horse's value and the concealing of ailments and infirmities. "We began to take more time and more care," says Feintuch, adding that Lloyds of London and other carriers have toughened their approach to paying claims.
Lloyds's increased vigilance dates back eight years to a case that rocked the highest levels of the thoroughbred breeding world and drove some of its biggest players to hide behind the woodshed in embarrassment. When, on March 25, 1984, an imported English horse named Pelerin died of vitamin D toxicosis shortly after ending his inconsistent career by finishing out of the money in a race in Louisiana, the underwriters of the insurance on the horse, all associated with Lloyds, had reason to be skeptical of the $1.45 million policy that Kentucky horseman Harold Snowden held on his half of the animal. Not only did Pelerin appear to have been poisoned, as the term toxicosis implies, but his value (Snowden and a partner had purchased him for $2 million) had dropped sharply in light of his less-than-stellar racing career.
Snowden, co-owner of the Stallion Station farm and breeder of two Kentucky Derby winners, Dust Commander (1970) and Bold Forbes (1976), had been one of the most active players in the business, the syndicator of more than 100 stallions and a prolific insurer of horses. In a gesture aimed at staying in Snowden's favor, the underwriters offered him $1 million—exactly what he had paid originally for half of the horse—to settle the claim. Snowden held out for $1.35 million. The carriers refused to budge, and Snowden took them to court. It was the first time that an equine insurance company had opposed someone of his stature.
Snowden came armed with 10 letters from fellow horsemen, all dated before Pelerin's death, in which each breeder expressed interest in buying a share in the horse for $75,000 upon his retirement to stud. At the 40 shares Snowden said he would have sold, Pelerin's claimed value now rose to $3 million. Among the nationally known breeders who sent letters were Warner Jones, then chairman of the board of Churchill Downs; J.T. Lundy, later head of Calumet Farm; and the late Leslie Combs II, then the aging pillar of Spendthrift Farm.
Snowden looked as if he would win in a gallop when—in a maneuver Perry Mason would have envied—Feintuch, acting on the underwriters' behalf, called two witnesses who destroyed Snowden's case and earned him the glowering wrath of the judge, Henry Wilhoit. One of the witnesses, a secretary for breeder Dwayne Rogers, testified that she had typed Rogers's letter to Snowden. The problem was that she had not begun working for Rogers until 14 months after Pelerin's death. She explained to the court that Rogers told her to backdate the letter to Jan. 5, 1984, two months before the horse's demise. The other witness, a receptionist at Spendthrift Farm, testified that she had typed Combs's letter to Snowden but that she did not go to work at Spendthrift until July 1984, by which time Pelerin had been dead four months. She testified that Combs had her type the backdated letter late one day, after everyone else had left the office.
Snowden was in trouble. His lawyers withdrew on him, leaving him to face a furious Wilhoit. Snowden hired F. Lee Bailey to put the toothpaste back in the tube, but that did no good. After a third horseman admitted that his letter was a fraud, Wilhoit concluded that "all 10 letters had been backdated." While never addressing the question of whether Pelerin was poisoned, Wilhoit charged that "a fraud had been practiced upon the court." Not only was Snowden out the $1 million that Lloyds had offered in the original settlement, but he was also left with a dead horse, a court-ordered judgment against him for $194,131.12 (to cover court costs and the amount Lloyds spent in legal fees fighting his claim) and bills from his own departed lawyers, not to mention from Bailey.
While the thoroughbred business has had its sorry share of cases involving insurance fraud, it has experienced nothing like the maelstrom that Burns is about to set spinning in the show-horse business. Sources say that, based on Burns's testimony, some of the most celebrated figures in the game are targets of the grand jury probe. They include Donna Brown and her husband, Buddy Brown, a member of the U.S. equestrian team at the 1976 Olympics and still one of the nation's leading performers in Grand Prix jumping. Not only does Donna face allegations in connection with the death of Streetwise, but she and Buddy are also under investigation for the death of Aramis, another show jumper. According to sources, insurance records show that Aramis, while insured for $1 million, died under suspicious circumstances. (No charge has been tiled in either case.)
Asked about the federal investigations into the deaths of two of the Browns' horses, the couple's lawyer, Mark Arisohn, a Manhattan criminal defense specialist, says, "I wish I could give you a response. We will plead not guilty. Our defense will be established in the courtroom."
Another horseman who has attracted the attention of investigators is George Lindemann Jr. of Greenwich, Conn., who has emerged as one of the nation's most accomplished equestrians since graduating from Brown University in 1986. Lindemann has ridden his stable of gifted show jumpers to victory in some of the Grand Prix circuit's richest and most prestigious events, but federal investigators are more interested in what role, if any, he played in the December 1990 death of his champion hunter Charisma.
Tommy Burns has told authorities that Charisma was insured for $400,000 when Burns electrocuted him for Lindemann in a stall at the Lindemann family's Cellular Farms, in Armonk, N.Y. According to another source, Lindemann had purchased Charisma for $250,000 in 1989. Minus Burns's alleged $35,000 fee for the hit, the insurance payoff would have left Lindemann with a $115,000 profit. It also left investigators wondering why, if Burns's allegations are true, the enormously rich Lindemann—the name Cellular Farms refers to cellular phones, the source of the family's wealth—would take so big a risk for so small a sum.
Asked about the inquiry into Charisma's death, Lindemann referred all questions to his lawyer, Elaine Amendola, who said, "Why should I be talking about this when George has the FBI hanging all over his neck?" She added, however, that "George is completely innocent."
Additionally, federal agents are looking into the possible involvement of veterinarian Dana Tripp, also an accomplished equestrian, in the death of Streetwise. Florida investigators say that Tripp's red pickup truck—with DANA TRIPP, D.V.M. emblazoned on its doors—was part of Burns's caravan as it made its way toward Canterbury Farms. It was Tripp, according to sources cited in the police report, who recommended to Donna Brown that she hire Burns to stage Streetwise's accident. Prosecutors have phone records revealing Tripp's numerous conversations with both Brown and Burns in the two days leading up to the death of Streetwise. Tripp has refused to respond to SI's questions about the matter.
The Sandman's trail has led federal agents to stables in at least eight states. Sources say that Paul Valliere of North Smithfield, R.I., one of the show circuit's leading trainers, is under federal investigation. Burns has told authorities that Valliere hired him to destroy Roseau Platiere, one of Valliere's own horses. Burns says he electrocuted the animal one night in its stall at a horse show in Sugarbush, Vt. Reached at his Acres Wild Farm in Rhode Island, Valliere refused to answer any questions. Seeking corroboration of Burns's Sugarbush story, SI spoke to a woman who said that she had picked Burns up at the airport in Burlington, Vt., and taken him to the horse show. (The woman said she had given this information to the FBI.) SI also spoke to others who described Roseau Platiere as vigorous and healthy in the hours before Burns's visit. Burns says he has federal agents that Roseau Platiere was one of the three horses he destroyed in 1989 during the busiest week of his career as a contract killer.
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.