CHICAGO — It is portrayed as a conspiracy of the rich and infamous--a network of riders, trainers, owners and veterinarians who concocted a vicious plot to kill horses to collect insurance.
The same people who pampered horses, picking up silver cups and blue ribbons along the exclusive riding circuit here and abroad, now stand accused of playing a role in the cruelest crimes: electrocuting, starving, even allowing animals to be burned alive.
But federal investigators say there was something even worse under the genteel veneer of crisp, velvet riding hats and sleek steeds galloping over fences.
There was murder.
Prosecutors say they exposed the seamy underside in this most unlikely of worlds on their way to something else: cracking the 17-year-old murder mystery of one wealthy animal lover.
They've arrested and charged one man with arranging the 1977 murder of Helen Vorhees Brach, lonely widow of the Brach candy fortune who vanished after an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
Their investigation into Brach's disappearance also has led to the arrest of a 61-year-old horseman in another of Chicago's most baffling mysteries: the 1955 murders of three young boys.
Two whodunits 22 years apart. One unlikely connection: horses.
Even more tantalizing is the hint that more crimes may be solved.
"Not only is this unusual, but it's not over yet," says Jerry Singer, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office in Chicago.
The break in the Brach case was made public in July when federal authorities indicted 23 people prosecutors call a "virtual who's who of the nation's equestrian industry."
The arrest in the 39-year-old murders followed soon after.
"It's not unusual to investigate one crime and uncover evidence of another," Singer said. "It's interesting the way it all comes out."
"It's very fortunate because these cases are rather old," he added. "But we never give up and we never forget."
Police in north suburban Glenview never forgot about the mystery of the missing candy heiress.
Over the years, there were lurid Hitchcock-like hints about Brach's disappearance: her houseman's purchase of a meat grinder, a convict's drawing of maps and his claim that he buried the widow's body in Minnesota under cover of night, an exhumation of a mutilated corpse from a pauper's grave in Illinois.
One man who came under suspicion early was Richard Bailey, a perpetually tan horse trader from Kentucky with an eighth-grade education and a knack for sweet-talking women. He had wined, dined and become an eager escort of Brach, who had her own modest origins: She met candy company founder Frank Brach when she was a coat-check girl at a Florida country club.
In 1979, two years after her disappearance, a spray-painted message was scrawled on the road near Brach's seven-acre estate reading, "Richard Bailey Knows Where Brach's Body Is," according to Glenview Police Commander John O'Connell.
O'Connell said that when Bailey was questioned, he said the same words had been painted on a sign at his stables in a nearby suburb. O'Connell declined to elaborate on what else Bailey said.
John Menk, a court-appointed attorney for Brach's estate, worth about $30 million when she disappeared, also tried to question Bailey about his relationship with the candy heiress. "He took the Fifth Amendment, except for his name and address," the lawyer said.
Last month, after a five-year investigation of the equestrian industry, Bailey was charged with fleecing Brach and 12 other women of large sums of money.
Prosecutors claim that since 1989, Bailey placed at least 26 lonely hearts ads--"family oriented, loves dancing, exercising, long walks"--conning affluent widows or divorcees into shoddy horse investments.
Bailey, 65, is accused of wooing an alcoholic divorcee, getting her drunk and persuading her to shell out about $90,000 on horses--her virtual life savings--in 10 days.
The indictment charges that after Brach threatened to report Bailey for talking her into spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on virtually worthless horses, he and a second unidentified person conspired with others to arrange her murder. No one is charged with actually committing the murder.
Bailey has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Patrick Tuite, suggests his client is a "very charming man" who was merely involved in relationships that soured.
As for Brach, Tuite said his client "emphatically denies" any involvement.
But others say the charges confirmed their worst suspicions about a woman who loved animals but was painfully naive.
"It was so blatant the way he flaunted Helen," Donna Ewing, president of the National Hooved Animal Humane Society, said of Bailey. "Anybody in the know who saw a neophyte get involved with someone of that caliber said, 'Oh, my God. There's one born every minute. Here's one who's going to be taken advantage of.' "
"She was very lonely, a shy, quiet person," Ewing added. "She probably thought this would fill her loneliness and her hours."