Written by: Heather Clemenceau
Netflix has a new true crime docuseries out that profiles scandals within the sports industry with first-hand accounts from those involved. Episode 6 – “Horse Hitman” profiles Tommy Burns, AKA “The Sandman,” who was responsible for the killings of expensive sport horses at the behest of their owners, to perpetrate insurance fraud. The horse killings were discovered by the FBI incidentally while they were investigating the disappearance of Brach candy heiress Helen Brach in the late 1970s. The investigation, which centered on a racketeering scam where wealthy heiresses were convinced to invest in horses worth up to 750,000 (who were later killed for insurance), led them to Burns, who subsequently made a deal with investigators where he would provide all the horrible details that implicated him, and would only be charged with one crime (but if the FBI discovered he lied about any detail, he would be charged for all the killings).
Tommy’s intel led to the conviction of many individuals who contracted with him to kill their horses. But Burns was hardly a role model; he was really a deeply/flawed anti-hero, who had literally no empathy for horses when he could enrich himself by killing them. But in watching the Netflix episode, you may find that his dialogue creates the same sense of justice being served that a traditional hero might.
As a young adult, Burns had a long history of making bad decisions. Starting in the horse industry by doing manual labour at farms, he moved through the ranks of anti-hero archetypes, crossing almost all moral lines. He initially began working for Barney Ward, who owned Castle Hill Farm, and was a former member of the US Equestrian Team and US World Cup team, which gave him close insights to others in the horse industry. He developed a strong loyalty to Ward. Through his connections, he left Barney’s employ and went to work for lawyer Jim Druck, who operated Eagle’s Nest Farm near Ocala Florida, where he bred show horses. Rielle Hunter (formerly Lisa Druck) was his accomplished teenaged equestrian daughter. In 1981, Lisa/Rielle was riding a show horse named Henry The Hawk. Henry had been purchased and insured for $150,000; he was one of the top hunters in the country at the time.
Tommy Burns became obligated to Jim Druck when Druck got him off an assault with a deadly weapon charge – “You owe me.” Druck confronted Burns about having an affair with his wife, and he now needed money for the divorce settlement. Druck got an offer to sell Henry the Hawk for less than the amount he was insured for. So Druck determined that “Henry’s Gotta Go.” The horse’s fate was thus sealed.
Very ironically, Druck’s legal practice consisted of defending insurance companies against claims. He knew that if a horse were electrocuted in a certain manner, it would be very difficult for a veterinary pathologist to find signs of foul play, unless the animal was necropsied by someone who knew to look for a burn mark, the death would be chalked up to colic. Electrocuting a horse mimics colic – the twisting of the horse’s gut that comes on very suddenly without symptoms. Druck counselled Burns exactly how to do it – with an extension cord split down the middle, with alligator clips attached to the ear and rectum of the horse. It was the “perfect crime,” from which Druck profited with Burns as the facilitator.
After the killing of Henry the Hawk, Burns was out-of-control. He was stealing saddles and credit cards, all centered around horse shows and the horse industry. Druck encouraged him to leave town because the cops were suspicious, so he reached out to his friend Barney Ward, who he claimed had a legitimate interest in helping him.
Around this time, Burns made a connection with horse trainer Paul Valliere (who trained Canadian Olympian showjumper Eric Lamaze). Valliere offered Tommy $5,000 to kill his horse Roseau Plattier. The insurance policy on the horse was about to lapse, so apparently this was the reason he needed the horse dead ASAP. So he was also electrocuted. Then, horse people started calling Tommy on a weekly basis, and his fee went up considerably.
George Lindemann Jr was from of one of the richest families in Palm Beach – his father was a billionaire. To kill George Lindemann Jr’s horse Charisma, he was paid $35,000 plus expenses. For $5,000, Burns had an accomplice break the leg of a horse named Streetwise, whose owner just didn’t like him. Burns, who justified electrocution as “painless,” apparently drew the line at breaking a horse’s leg with a crowbar, so he subcontracted that one out, knowing that a veterinarian would have to euthanize the horse. Streetwise had had a colic operation previously, and as colic was excluded from his insurance policy, the jumper cables couldn’t be used.
“Break his fucking leg.” She was heartless. ~Tommy Burns
By 1991, Tommy was under surveillance, and he and his accomplice were arrested at the conclusion of the beating of Streetwise. Police took his confession and reported the killings to the Insurance Crime Bureau. Paul Valliere admitted to the crime of contracting with Burns to electrocute Roseau Plattier and defraud the insurance company of $75,000. In his deal with prosecutors, Valliere agreed to wear a wire for over a year, gathering information for the federal authorities, which revealed an astonishing plot twist in the docuseries.
Tommy Burns claimed in the documentary that he was always forthcoming with the FBI, but in truth, he held back a significant piece of information. If you haven’t watched the Netflix episode, and you don’t want a major plot twist revealed, I suggest you skip down to the epilogue.
The FBI knew that Tommy must have had a connection who was facilitating these contract killings throughout the US. They knew that he was not sufficiently resourceful to establish these connections of his own volition. After Paul Valliere recorded a conversation for the federal agents, they confronted Burns with their discovery of the identity of this “facilitator.” In the recorded conversation made by Valliere, it was Barney Ward who revealed that he would have Tommy killed so that he could not take the stand against them. Since he idolized Ward and took great pains to protect him, Tommy was forced to come to the powerful realization that, not only was the loyalty not reciprocated, he was completely expendable. In no way had Tommy planned to implicate Barney.
Tommy confessed to killing between 15-20 horses. 18 people were charged with revolving insurance fraud. The uber-wealthy George Lindemann Jr was sentenced to 33 months and was ordered to pay a $500,000 fine and restitution to the insurance company. Paul Valliere was put on probation for 4 years and had to pay a $5,000 fine. Tommy’s accomplice in the killing of Streetwise was sentenced to 18 months. Jim Druck collected on a $150,000 insurance policy for arranging the killing of his daughter’s horse in 1982, but he was under investigation by the FBI when he died of cancer in 1990. He never suffered any legal consequences.
Barney Ward was sentenced to 33 months in prison, followed by three years of probation, and was ordered to make restitution of $200,000 to one of the defrauded insurance companies.
Tommy himself was given leniency for his cooperation; he received a sentence of one year in prison.
No one was ever convicted for the conspiracy to murder heiress Helen Brach. Stable owner/conman Richard Bailey was convicted of racketeering and fraud against Helen and other women.
Rielle Hunter (Lisa Druck) was devastated since she loved Henry. She must have wondered how a person could insert himself into her family, have an affair with her mother, and then kill her horse? With her own father killing her beloved horse, whatever family bonds she had must surely have been destroyed.
Why would any super-wealthy person kill a horse when they didn’t need the money? In Druck’s case, he did need the money for his divorce. But for others, the horses were “disappointments.” Their lack of performance was a symbol of failure that reflected poorly; if the horse goes away, you collect the insurance, and the embarrassment is removed. In that way, the owners were able to make themselves “financially and reputationally whole.” Charisma (Lindemann Jr’s horse) evidently performed poorly on the show horse circuit which made him look bad. He had the horse killed to save face. It was apparently easier than admitting he made a mistake in buying the horse. His father was worth around 4 billion so it certainly wasn’t an issue of money. But it’s really evidence of poor character when you kill an innocent animal for no other reason than you are embarrassed – with such wealth he could have simply given the horse away to someone who would have been overjoyed with the gift. For the mega-rich, cashing in an insurance policy on a horse is like redeeming a $25 gift certificate to Tim Hortons for the rest of us.
In cases where insurance fraud is never caught and punished, Insurance companies do what they always do when forced to absorb those losses – they increase premiums for everyone else. But the horses were the biggest losers.