Bad Sport: Horse Hitman

The new Netflix docuseries “Bad Sport” revisits some of outrageous sport scandals in recent memory, including episode 5, which covers the horse killings for insurance scandal of the 1980s. While the memory of the killings — and the people it brought down — are still fresh in my memory, for many younger riders, this may be the first time they’ve heard of “The Sandman”, Tommy Burns, who killed about 15 horses for owners who wanted the insurance money more than the horse. Burns usually electrocuted the horses, which gave the impression that they had died of colic.

The Netflix episode interviews Burns about his role in the killings. Although I’ve read “Hot Blood and numerous other articles about the scandal, I’d never heard his perspective. It provides a valuable clue to how so many people were caught up in the scandal: Burns told the FBI. Barney Ward, Paul Valliere, Donna Brown (wife of Buddy Brown), George Lindemann Jr. were all big names in the hunter/jumper world. Their indictment, and ultimate convictions, rocked the equestrian world. Several of them lived near where I grew up and, while I didn’t know them, I saw them at horse shows and people talked about them. A lot.

Burns reveals that the FBI played him a tape during which Barney Ward told Paul Valliere that he’d arranged for Burns to be killed before the trial, so he couldn’t testify. That was the turning point for Burns, who proceeded to tell the FBI about all the people he’d killed for. The main “fixer” was Ward, one of the top trainers in the country. Burns started working for Ward as a groom, when still in his teens. But it wasn’t until he left Ward’s farm to work for Jim Druck, that he killed his first horse.

Druck, about to go through a divorce (Burns reveals that he’d had an affair with Druck’s wife) had bought Henry the Hawk, an expensive hunter for his daughter, Reille Hunter, then know is Lisa Jo Druck (Hunter later gained worldwide notoriety for her affair and subsequent child with presidential candidate John Edwards). Druck tried to sell the horse but didn’t get a good enough offer. Instead he explained to Burns how to electrocute a horse so Druck could collect the insurance settlement. After that, Burns earned between $5 – $40,000 for each horse that he killed.

It’s a terrible story, but it’s one that needs to be told again and again. People have short memories. Or maybe they simply don’t care. Although Ward went to jail for three years, was on probation for three years, and was permanently banned from attending American Horse Show Association events, he stayed a major force at the highest level of equestrian competition. His son, McLain, whom he coached, is still one of the top riders in the world and before he died, Barney was instrumental in picking horses for him.

Paul Valliere served just four years of probation, paid a $5,000 fine; and was suspended from participating in horse shows sanctioned by the American Horse Show Association. In 2006 he petitioned to gain reinstatement, which failed. However, he continued to be a sought after coach until his death.

Tommy Burns served one year in prison. His deal with the prosecutors involve being charged with just one crime in compensation for detailing the other killings.

George Lindemann Jr. was sentenced to 33 months in prison for insurance fraud and was ordered to pay a $500,000 fine and $250,000 restitution to the insurance company.

Donna Brown was never arrested.

Many of the people involve in this scandal are gone and forgotten. But we should never forget the depths to which people will sink when driven by greed, It’s important for the younger generation of equestrians to know that this type of behavior should never be tolerated. Too many people no longer remember.

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