DALLAS — This is a story of speculation, cruelty and greed.
During the energy boom of the early 1980s, registered quarter horses were the Rolls-Royce of the Southwest and the subject of a speculation fever that drove the price of good, or even average, horseflesh into the tens of thousands of dollars. When that fever broke, some speculators decided that their investments were worth more dead than alive.
"A lot of people got into the business because they thought it would be a fast return, and, when the bottom dropped out, they ended up losing everything they owned and then some. And what did they do? They put a lot of insurance on (the animals) and they killed them," said William Graham, 45, a brawny former Marine and policeman who runs a private investigating firm in Seneca, S. C.
By 1984, some horses purchased for five and six figures were selling for 10 cents on the dollar.
5% 'Are So Greedy'
"A lot of (investors) just took their licking. Most of them were honorable . . . but you've always got that 5% who are so greedy," Graham said.
Graham's view reflects years spent tracking down that 5%--those willing to shoot, maim, poison, burn and otherwise torture an animal to death.
"I think anybody that does this, they are diabolical. They are reprehensible. That horse is depending on you to take care of him, and he is very trusting. And for you to put a plastic bag over his head, or electrocute him, or poison him, you've got to be the scum of the earth," he said.
Seven people were convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy and other federal charges in Arkansas in 1986 in a scheme in which 19 horses were killed and claims of $897,250 were made against five insurance companies.
Horse Trainer Jailed
Cecil Jines, a quarter-horse trainer from Black Rock, Ark., testified that he created the scheme because he "saw how easy it was" to make money through insurance fraud. Jines, who pleaded guilty, is serving a seven-year prison term.
Jines said he would buy a horse, then transfer it to an accomplice, who would prepare a bill of sale to another accomplice inflating the value of the animal. Little money changed hands.
An insurance policy would be taken out at the inflated value, usually naming the accomplices rather than Jines as the beneficiary. Soon, the animals would die from what appeared to be natural or accidental causes, and the schemers would divvy up the insurance money.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Brent Bumpers said the scheme "is without a doubt the most gruesome and grotesque offense I'd ever prosecuted."
Doc's Chrome Cat, which was insured for $125,000, was electrocuted. Jines testified that Dr. Thomas E. Watson, a Warm Springs, Ark., veterinarian sentenced to three years in prison, cut away parts of the animal burned by the electricity to avoid problems at the autopsy.
At the trial, Watson contended that he had participated under duress because he feared for his life, but Bumpers said, "We had overwhelming evidence to the contrary."
Several horses were killed by injecting them with a homemade bacterial solution that made them sick. Others died in a barn fire. One animal's leg was broken so it had to be destroyed.
The break in the case came when five conspirators took a horse to an auction at Shawnee, Okla., drove the price up to $40,000--at least $25,000 more than the price of any other animal sold during the three-day event--and bought it back themselves, Bumpers said. They then tried to kill the horse twice during the drive back to Arkansas.
While driving, they unhooked the trailer, allowing it to crash, but the horse and another one in the trailer survived.
Plastic Bag on Horse's Head
A farmer told them they could keep the horses in his barn overnight. The conspirators pretended to depart but actually returned to the barn, where they put a plastic garbage bag over one horse's head.
A 16-year-old farm hand who lived in the barn heard the commotion and investigated. He ordered them to remove the bag, a command he backed up with a gun. He reported the incident to the farmer, who called the sheriff.
Bumpers said the only common motivator he has found is greed.
"These guys are strictly out for the easy money. . . . They were collecting up to $80,000 per horse for a couple of hours' time in filling out paper work for the insurance claim and actually killing it."
As a response to unusually high losses on quarter horses, insurance companies are making it more costly to insure the animals and making owners assume more risk by raising premiums or placing ceilings on the amount of insurance available, said Ken Aylor, an Oklahoma City, Okla., livestock insurance agent.
"The limits used to run in the millions, where now in the United States with U.S. companies the maximum today that we can get a quarter horse insured for is $50,000," he said.
Graham, 45, said he investigates horse killings just as he would a homicide.
Looks for 'Red Flags'