Show-horse killer wants to ruin rich owners, too, as xTC insurance scams unfold

September 05, 1993|By New York Times News Service

CHICAGO -- Tommy Burns has done some nasty deeds in his 32 years but he's no rat. He wants everyone to be clear on that score. He knows how to keep his mouth shut.

And he wants everyone to be crystal clear about one more thing. The only reason he's cooperating with federal agents investigating deadly acts of cruelty and fraud in the glittering show horse business is that those rich skunks he worked for turned their backs on him the second he got busted doing their dirty work.

For nearly 10 years, he says, he crept into stables and barns in the middle of the night and killed show horses, 13 or 15 all told. The rich owners pocketed tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance money. His total was about $150,000.

Burns says that if he had taken all the offers to kill horses that came his way, the death toll would have been closer to 50. His typical fee was at least $5,000. But he says he once got $40,000. "People get paid less for killing people," he says.

Once he was arrested, he says, his so-called friends wouldn't bail him out or even return his calls. They made him feel like something on the bottom of a riding boot. Spilling his guts is his bittersweet revenge. It is also his only shot at shaving time off a prison term. The only other thing he wants from this mess is to be sent to a federal prison with a golf course.

He told his former pals they'd be sorry for not helping him. Now, according to the nervous talk whipping around the horse show circuit, when Tommy Burns is finished talking, owners, trainers and veterinarians could be indicted and disgraced.

Seedy rumors

The authorities have long been sifting the circuit's rumors of fraud, larceny and even murder. With Burns prepared to talk to a grand jury, officials think they have a guide into this seemingly glamorous universe of influence and wealth, of sun-washed fields of green and sinister stories of greed.

In a prepared statement, Jane F. Clark, president of the 60,000-member American Horse Shows Association, which sanctions 2,500 events, said her organization has given federal authorities its complete cooperation:

"I am eager to see the investigation completed and any guilty parties brought to justice. The prosecutions of a few which will result should not be taken as a general indictment of the overwhelming majority of horsemen and horsewomen who love their horses and have been horrified to learn of these acts of

greed and cruelty."

Tommy Burns isn't the first person to kill horses for the insurance. Terry McVey, the president of Equine Adjusters, which investigates insurance claims in the horse business, said as many as 5 percent of the claims are questionable.

But Mr. McVey says that if what Burns says about a string of killings from 1982 to 1991 is true, he is one of the more prolific horse killers in some time.

Once he was caught, Burns says, the authorities were also interested in anything he knew about the 1977 disappearance of Helen Brach, a Chicago candy heiress, who owned show horses and had complained to the authorities about being cheated in a purchase. Two breeders have been longtime suspects in the case. Burns says that he looked up to both of them as a youth, that he used to play cards with them and that they taught him "every little scam you could imagine."

Since his arrest, he says he hasn't even jaywalked. He keeps busy rehearsing his testimony, playing golf or wandering through his suburban neighborhood trying to lose some weight from his 5-foot-9-inch, 190-pound frame.

Death in the rain

It seems like a lifetime since that rainy night just outside of Gainesville, Fla., on Feb. 2, 1991, when Burns and his assistant, Harlow Arlie, broke a horse's right leg with a crowbar. Burns held the horse, Streetwise, while Arlie swung the crowbar, slamming it into the slender leg. In its pain and horror, the horse broke free and ran frantically through the stable, with Burns and Arlie chasing it, their voices full of mock concern.

A few minutes later, they called a vet to come and put the animal out of its misery. The story for the insurance company had been scripted: The horse fell and broke its leg in the rain.

As Burns and his partner drove away, they were surrounded by local authorities, who had been following them. With a shotgun pointed at his head and a snarling police dog nipping at his heels, Burns was arrested.

"Tommy blew his cool in the jail house," Arlie said in an interview. "He was calling everybody, and nobody came to his aid. He was calling all the big people, telling them, 'If you don't get me out, I'm going to squeal on all of you.' "

Arlie, who served eight months in jail for breaking Streetwise's leg, has already testified before the federal grand jury in Chicago investigating insurance fraud in the horse show industry.

The trick and profit in killing horses is to persuade the insurance companies that the animals died because of an accident or illness or an act of God.

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