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Detectives expose 'dirty secret' of US horsy set

WASHINGTON - Federal investigators in Chicago have cracked a massive horse-killing ring to defraud insurance companies, involving some of the biggest names in the clubby world of American equestrianism. In the process, they may have solved a society murder mystery which has fascinated the city for almost two decades, writes Rupert Cornwell.

The charges read like the plot of a Dick Francis novel. Among the 23 people indicted are two Grand Prix winners on the US show-jumping circuit, as well as leading trainers, owners and vets. All are accused of taking part in a scheme to insure horses for more than they were worth and then having them killed - what a US attorney, Steve Miller, this week called the 'dirty little secret of the industry'. But the counts against trainer Richard Bailey also include murder.

Described by prosecutors as a con-man and gigolo who preyed on wealthy and lonely women, Mr Bailey, 62, is accused of having organised the killing of a chocolate heiress, Helen Brach. Ms Brach, then 65, vanished in February 1977, leaving a fortune of dollars 30m ( pounds 19.5m). She was declared dead seven years later, although her body has never been found.

Lurid theories of her fate abound. According to one, she was buried under an Illinois stables; another has her corpse being put through the meat mincer she used to feed filet mignon to her dogs, while a third claims her corpse was placed in a pink Cadillac and dumped in a quarry.

Prosecutors now allege that Mr Bailey and three associates duped her into buying 'hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth' of overpriced horses, including one virtually worthless animal for which she paid dollars 100,000. Ms Brach discovered what was happening and threatened to go to the police, whereupon Mr Bailey hired a contract killer to dispose of her. Mr Bailey, who denies the charges, was also charged with racketeering, fraud and money-laundering. He faces a maximum of 245 years in prison if convicted.

Mr Bailey had long been a suspect in the Brach affair, but investigators only closed in because of his suspected involvement in the fraud scheme. The indictments claim it operated since the early 1970s. The pattern was invariably the same: the horses were over-insured and then killed. Mostly they were electrocuted, a method which leaves traces similar to the horse sickness, colic. If the policies did not cover colic, the animals would have their legs broken or be burnt alive.

Among others charged are George Lindemann, a Grand Prix winner whose father is one of the richest men in America, and whose champion horse Charisma died in unexplained circumstances, and Donna Brown, the 37- year-old wife of a member of the 1976 US Olympic team. She is charged with paying dollars 5,000 in 1991 to a man who killed a horse called Streetwise which had been bought for dollars 6,500, but was insured for dollars 25,000, prosecutors say.

The investigation is continuing and other indictments could follow. But already the list of those charged reads 'like a virtual Who's Who of the nation's equestrian industry', according to US attorney James Burns. 'This should be a wake-up call for the industry to put its house in order.'

Up to 15 of the killings were carried out by a professional hitman called Tommy Burns, who has admitted the crimes and is co-operating with police. 'A lot of people who hired me were only nice when they wanted something,' he is quoted as saying. 'They had enough money already; they were just greedy.'