I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Sports writer Lester Munson calls it “one of the biggest, most gruesome stories in sports,” as the wealthy owners of show horses hired hit men to kill animals in order to collect insurance money.
The Disappearance of Helen Brach
In February 1977, the heiress to a vast fortune went missing in Chicago. The 65-year-old woman was never seen again and is presumed to have been murdered. While investigating the crime, the FBI came across a man called Richard Bailey. He is described by ABC7Chicago as “a suburban horse swindler and part-time gigolo.”
Bailey was a con man who targeted wealthy widows. The wining and dining usually led to the sale of a broken down old nag passed off as a champion show mount for top dollar. Before the buyer could find out that the horse she had bought was worthless, the animal would mysteriously die.
Investigators concluded that Ms. Brach had figured out what Bailey was up to and that he bumped her off to silence her.
Even though there was no body, Bailey was found guilty in 1994 of being complicit in her murder in addition to his horse swindling business. He was given a 30-year sentence. Following threads from the Brach case, detectives came across the horse insurance fraud scheme.
Interview with Richard Bailey
Henry the Hawk
In March 1964, Lisa Druck was born into a wealthy Florida family. Her father, James Druck was a lawyer who made a handsome living defending insurance companies against fraudulent claims. The world-class irony of this will become apparent soon.
The Druck family owned the Eagle's Nest Farm near Ocala where they bred show horses.
Henry the Hawk was ridden by Lisa and together they won prizes, but the horse died in 1982. The cause of death was registered as colic and Druck collected on the $150,000 insurance he had taken out on Henry the Hawk. Druck had taken a page out of Richard Bailey's crime manual and had located a very unsavoury character called Tommy Burns (real name Tim Ray).
Druck taught Burns how to electrocute a horse so that its death would look like colic, a catch-all word for often-fatal equine intestinal ailments. Burns later told Sports Illustrated writer William Nack that Druck instructed him “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.”
The animal would drop fast and be dead before it hit the floor. Burns consoled himself by saying the horses did not suffer.
Tommy Burns' Career Change
Burns had run away from home at the age of 15 and had made a living working with horses. He was known in the show horse circuit and became a horse killer with the electrocution of Henry the Hawk. Soon, word spread among the well-heeled community of equestrian sports that if something nefarious needed to be done, Tommy Burns was the go-to guy. He acquired the nickname of “The Sandman.”
In 1989, he was hired to put down a gelding named Streetwise that had a history of colic. The $25,000 insurance policy on the animal excluded death from colic as claimable. At the instructions of the owner, Donna Brown, a simple solution was devised—break the animal's leg and then a vet would have to destroy it by lethal injection.
But, Burns had qualms about breaking a horse's leg, however, his accomplice, Harlow Arlie had no such scruples. For half Burns' fee of $5,000 he did the job with a crowbar and we needn't go into the gruesome consequences.
What Burns and Arlie didn't know was that they were under surveillance. Officials from the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services had a tip about Burns and had watched the whole grisly scene unfold. Burns and Arlie were arrested and, realizing they had no defence, decided to cooperate with authorities.
The Horse Insurance Scam
Federal investigators had been working for some time to close down what they suspected were fraudulent insurance claims, but the conspirators formed a close-knit community and nobody was talking. The arrest of Burns was the break they needed.
He started to give the FBI names, one of which was Paul Valliere, a horse owner and trainer from Rhode Island. He also agreed to cooperate and was wired up to record conversations with other conspirators.
It turned out that Burns was just the tip of the horse barn. Under performing race track horses were dropping in the middle of the night and entire stables were mysteriously catching fire.
Low-quality horses had their value inflated through the sale of phony shares in the animal so they could be insured for far more than their purchase price. Then, a phone call would be made to Tommy Burns: “Hey Tommy, you busy tomorrow night?”
According to reports, this happened more than 100 times and Tommy Burns wasn't the only one wielding jumper cables.
Where Are they Now?
- Richard Bailey, the suspected killer of Helen Brach, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released in 2019 at the age of 89.
- Donna Brown, owner of Streetwise whose leg was broken, was convicted of insurance fraud. She asked the judge for leniency as all she wanted to do was look after her seven-year-old daughter. The judge remarked that it was easy to become remorseful after being caught and gave her a seven-month federal prison sentence.
- Lisa Druck went into the movie business where she still works as a producer.
- James Druck faced no consequences for his actions over Henry the Hawk unless you count dying of lung cancer in 1990.
- Tommy Burns scored leniency for his cooperation and was sentenced to a year in prison. He now lives in Florida and sells car parts and is very successful, owning a horse farm quite close to where he killed Henry the Hawk. He is said to be a model citizen.
- Of the 36 people indicted in the horse murder scandal, 35 were convicted. Some got a few years and a hefty fine, others received lesser sentences.
- The insurance companies simply increased their premiums to cover their losses.
- The big losers, of course, were the horses.
- Lisa Druck went by several other names, one of them being Rielle Hunter, which may ring a distant bell for some. In 2008, as Senator John Edwards was running for the Democratic nomination for president and as his wife, Elizabeth, was dealing with cancer, he was having an affair with Ms. Hunter.
- One of the people caught in the dragnet was Victor Orena, one-time head of New York's Colombo crime family. In 1992, Orena was convicted on racketeering and murder charges and received three life sentences plus 85 years.
- “Edwards' 'other Woman' Revives Memories of a Gruesome Scandal.” Lester Munson, ESPN, August 14, 2008.
- “Chicago's Most Famous Missing Person Case Began 40 Years ago Friday.” Chuck Goudie, ABC7Chicago, February 17, 2017.”
- “Rielle Hunter and the Murdered Show Horses.” Janet Turley, HuffPost, December 6, 2017.
- “Blood Money.” William Nack, Sports Illustrated, November 16 1992.
- “The Worst Serial Murderer Sports Has ever Seen.” Prateek Sarkar, sportskeeda.com, July 20, 2013.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 05, 2021:
Truth is spoken.
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 05, 2021:
Just the thought of how those poor horses met their end makes my stomach turn. How do people sleep at night knowing they made such things happen to innocent animals. I never heard of this.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 05, 2021:
Agreed that the punishments in no way fit the crimes.
However, leniency for the country-club set is what we have come to expect. They have all the connections that can pull a few strings to make problems go away.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 05, 2021:
What horrific crimes! I agree with Shauna that the punishments for these crimes were far too lenient.
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 05, 2021:
This both breaks my heart and disgusts me. Horses are such majestic creatures. How could anyone even think of such atrocities as you describe here, Rupert?! And all for money. It's a crying shame. As far as I'm concerned the players in this unthinkable line of work got off far too easily.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 04, 2021:
It seems to me the Judges like the cruelty done to the horses or there is no reliable animal law back then. Thanks anyway.