The horse murders scandal
refers to cases of insurance fraud
in the United States in which expensive horses, many of them show jumpers, were insured against death, accident, or disease, and then killed to collect the insurance money. It is not known how many horses were killed in this manner between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, when a Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) investigation brought the horse killings to light, but the number is thought to be well over 50, and may have been as high as 100. In addition, in 1977, the heiress Helen Brach disappeared and was presumed by law enforcement agents to have been murdered by the perpetrators of these crimes, because she threatened to report their criminal activity to authorities; continuing
investigations into Brach's death began to uncover the insurance fraud in the 1990s.
The scandal has been called "one of the biggest, most gruesome stories in sports" as well as "the biggest scandal in the history of equestrian sports."
Thirty-six people were indicted
and tried for insurance fraud, mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice
, extortion, racketeering, and animal cruelty in connection with the horse murders; 35 were convicted. Of the 23 people indicted in Chicago in July 1994, 20 pleaded
The disappearance and murder of Helen Brach was never fully solved, although one man, Richard Bailey, is serving life in prison for soliciting her murder.
Over the 20-year period during which the horse murders took place, several different motivations led horse owners and trainers, often affluent and well-respected people, to become involved in what ultimately became a widespread conspiracy.
In some cases, the owner of a promising, or even prize-winning, horse was temporarily strapped for cash and decided to insure
and then kill the animal; this was the situation in the 1982 murder of the show jumper Henry the Hawk.
Sometimes people bought over-valued horses. Rather than take a loss on a poor investment, these owners chose to finance their next horse purchase by defrauding the insurance company
that had insured the unwanted horse.
Another aspect to the scandal went beyond insurance fraud and involved racketeering. This scheme, a form of confidence game
, consisted of bilking wealthy widows of their money by encouraging them to invest
in horses. The animals were usually over-valued or under-performing, and the conspirators killed the animals in order to prevent the owners from uncovering how much they had overspent. In some cases, before the women invested, these non-performing animals were first "bid up" in value by the co-conspirators, in an attempt to make them seem more desirable to the purchasers. In other cases, a shill buyer would offer to co-purchase the horse from a conspiring owner or trainer, with each buyer putting up half the stated purchase price
. The check from the shill buyer would be destroyed and the two con artists would deposit and split the money paid
by the wealthy woman buyer. If she began to suspect that the horse she had purchased was relatively valueless, it would be killed for the insurance money, which would soothe her financially, and if the conspirators still had her confidence, she would then be encouraged to invest in another co-owned horse, repeating the cycle. The men who worked this form of confidence game often acted as gigolos to the widows they bilked. It was one of these schemes which the wealthy widow
Helen Brach uncovered that — when she announced her intention to report the fraud that had been perpetrated on her — led to her disappearance and murder.