'I got paid a lot more for killing horses than a lot of people get for killing people,' Burns says. His preferred method was to electrocute the horses because it was easy and left no traces. Starting in 1982, when he killed a horse called Henry the Hawk, insured for dollars 150,000 by a Florida lawyer, Burns would enter the stall of a horse, attach one end of a wire with an alligator clip to its ear and the other to its rectum and then plug it into a wall socket.
'They go down immediately,' says Burns. 'One horse dropped so fast in the stall, he must have broken his neck when he hit the floor. It's a sick thing, I know, but it was quick and was painless.' The only sign of what had happened was a singe mark. Federal agents have identified at least 20 horses killed by Burns, and they were surprised to discover some owners had made little effort to cover their tracks, paying Burns with personal cheques.
The killing that led to the arrest of Burns on 2 February 1991, and his subsequent confession in search of a shorter sentence, differed from previous attacks only in the method used to destroy the horse. He says Donna Brown, a well-known horsewoman, hired him and his associate Harlow Arlie for dollars 5,000 to break the leg of a seven-year-old horse she owned called Streetwise. The leg- breaking was important because the dollars 25,000 insurance on Streetwise did not cover death by colic, the cause of death normally given by vets after Burns had electrocuted a horse.
On a rainy night in February 1991, Burns and Arlie drove Streetwise and other horses from Illinois to Florida, according to a lengthy investigation by the monthly Sports Illustrated. Their plan was to say that the horse slipped as it was on the ramp of the horsebox, breaking its leg and forcing them to destroy it. What they did not know was that investigators acting for the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services, tipped off by the FBI, were watching them. Suddenly, before anybody could intervene, Arlie appeared behind Streetwise and smashed the horse's rear right leg with a crowbar. As the horse lay on the ground a vet was summoned, and after Ms Brown and the insurance company were told what happened, Streetwise was put down. To Burns and Arlie it looked like another easy dollars 5,000, but as they drove away they were stopped by police, who discovered the crowbar and the electrical cables normally used by Burns for killing horses.
Over the past two years, federal investigators have been sifting through Burns's allegations. Ms Brown and her husband Buddy, who was once a member of the US Olympic team, deny wrongdoing, but are expected to be indicted, along with better-known figures in US showjumping. These include George Lindemann Jr, a successful rider and owner, whose family made millions from cellular telephones.
Burns says Mr Lindemann paid him dollars 35,000 to kill a horse called Charisma, insured for dollars 400,000. Mr Lindemann denies the charge, as does his trainer, Marion Hulick, whom Burns claimed set up the killing. She denies ever meeting Burns, but ABC News discovered a witness, the stable manager Jerry Shepard, who said he saw her give Burns a tour of the stables, stopping at just one stall. 'Marion (Hulick) opens up the door. The name on the door is Charisma. She goes in, makes a gesture to Tommy, messes with the horse's blanket, straightens it out. I don't know what time Tommy Burns left, but the horse did die that night.'
Killing horses for the insurance money is not new in the US. The temptation is simple enough. A showjumper bought and insured for dollars 300,000 differs from an Impressionist painting in that it may suddenly become worthless because of a damaged tendon. If, however, it dies suddenly, the owner gets his money back from the insurer.
In the late 1980s the temptation was all the greater, because the bottom dropped out of the market for horses, where prices had previously soared. The average price paid at the Keeneland July Yearling Sales in Kentucky went from dollars 200,000 in 1980 to dollars 600,000 in 1984, but down to dollars 400,000 or less in 1990. Changes in US tax laws also made it difficult to write off the loss on a horse whose value had gone down.
For instance, in 1987 a Connecticut businessman, Gerald Minsky, owned a three-year-old colt called McBlush, insured for dollars 100,000 but, after an accident in a paddock, unable to race. The owners discovered he was worth just 50 cents a pound as horsemeat. As a result, McBlush was killed with an injection of dirty water from a slop bucket and a massive dose of insulin. The insurers, in this case Lloyd's of London, paid up. The truth was only revealed when somebody tried to repeat the scheme.
An earlier scandal revealed the solidarity of leading owners in the face of investigations. In 1984 Harold Snowden, a prominent racehorse owner from Kentucky, sued insurers when they refused to pay the full insured amount on an horse called Pelerin, because they suspected it was poisoned. Snowden arrived in court with letters from 10 horse breeders, dated before Pelerin's death, saying they were each prepared to pay dollars 75,000 for a share in the horse after he was retired to stud. If true, this would have proved that Snowden stood to make more money from Pelerin alive than dead, and therefore had no motive to kill him. During the course of the trial, however, it emerged that all the breeders had written the letters after Pelerin died, and had simply pre-dated them.
Showjumping figures deny Burns's clients were typical of US showjumping. But Burns's talents seem to have been well known on the showjumping circuit. He recalls that at one horse show he was approached by a woman: 'She said, 'Do you think you could kill my horse for dollars 10,000?' so I did. She bought another horse with the insurance money and came to me two months later and asked me to kill her new horse. She didn't like it.'