ZEPHYRHILLS — The Rottweilers’ barking woke Brena Kramer in the darkest part of the January morning, but it was when they fell silent that she got worried. They were chasing something.
She stepped onto the big screened porch and looked toward the barn. A security lamp gave off the only light. Across the yard, she heard an unusual sound — one of the horses shuffling anxiously in his stall.
Five years earlier, Kramer had turned this property, set back off a railroad access drive, into her dream: a horse rehabilitation center. She took horses nobody else would, ones that needed up to a year of treatment. It was nonstop work, but nothing else gave her the same joy as connecting with horses that had been abused, neglected, sometimes left to die.
They’d need to be fed soon, anyway, so she crossed the backyard. She kept the barn lights off — after years of routine, she could go by feel and save electricity. She worked her way around the stalls until she came to the last horse, Gus, a chestnut gelding who she’d rescued from a kill pen. Without her, he would’ve been sent to Mexico to be butchered.
Kramer reached up to feed Gus and kicked a hay bag. Her senses lit up: She’d left the bag hanging on a hook in Gus’s stall. She flipped on the lights, and the whole scene hit her at once: hay and treats littering the ground; leads and halters, which she never used except in moving horses off the property, scattered about; and Gus, bound by ropes to two sides of his stall.
She called the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and told deputies what she thought had happened. Someone had tried to kill her horses.
• • •
Buying and selling horse meat is effectively illegal in the U.S., but slaughter had been on the minds of many in the Central Florida horse community lately. In the span of a couple of weeks, horses in three counties had been stolen, killed and butchered, ravaged bodies or severed heads left behind. The news rattled owners and caretakers who feared they’d be next.
The first body was found on Thanksgiving Day in a pasture south of Ocala. It belonged to HotRod, a 21-year-old paint gelding, according to news reports. Someone had removed his skin. The cuts were clean.
Four days later, someone forced through a locked gate on a farm in Palmetto and stole a horse. One of the owners found the horse butchered in a nearby field, said Steve Stephens, a friend and neighbor. In an incident report, Manatee County Sheriff’s deputies wrote that the killers had “harvested most of the meat.”
Then, on Dec. 11, a Bushnell horse boarder woke to find that one of the horses on her property, 11-year-old Jayda, was missing. She followed tracks and droppings across the street and through a cut fence onto another property, until she reached a creek a half-mile in. Knowing Jayda feared water, she followed the edge of the creek to a hastily constructed pile of branches. Underneath, she found the horse’s mangled corpse.
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On Facebook, frightened horse owners posted about unsettling incidents in other counties — a fence cut in Brooksville, suspicious passersby in Plant City. They speculated about ritual sacrifice and posited that the killings might be the work of one person moving up and down I-75. Some posted the license plates of cars they said had driven by their properties too slowly. One user said she trailed a “suspicious” vehicle for miles, to let the driver know they’d been seen.
Kristine Wake, a Central Florida mortgage broker who has owned horses for more than 30 years, watched the posts. She belonged to a few Facebook groups for area horse lovers, and she was friends with many in the horse community. But it was hard to keep up with so many sources of information, hard to tell what was new or old, to distinguish what was legitimate from what wasn’t.
So Wake created a Facebook group, Keeping Florida Horses Safe, to keep track of all the suspicious-activity reports. She planned to send each of them to law enforcement agencies, knowing that many horse owners would complain on Facebook but never go through official channels.
Within three weeks, the page had 3,000 members and hundreds of more requests awaiting approval.
Some posters advocated for a shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach to deterring horse thieves. Wake had to urge the group to stay vigilant but not become vigilantes.
“I worry that someone is going to take the law into their own hands,” she said, “and the law isn’t going to protect them.”
She understood why the killings pushed some people to the edge, though. Horse owners develop deep bonds with their animals. She could tell how a horse was feeling just by looking at it from across a pasture, from the way it moved its head or twitched its ears.
“Horses have a way of seeing deep inside of your soul,” she said. “They have a way of knowing just what you need when you need it.”
That bond was part of what made the killings so unsettling, she thought. Horses are prey animals — they’ll flee if confronted by a predator. But these horses are pets, too. They’ve been conditioned to trust humans, and they may well extend that trust to strangers who break into a barn in the middle of the night.
These horses weren’t dragged to their deaths. They walked there.
• • •
Sgt. Rob Hendrickson patrols the gravelly backroads and private drives of rural Manatee County, where he leads a community policing team for the Sheriff’s Office. With a bristly mustache and a back-of-the-hand intimacy with the terrain, he seems to have a story for every curve and bump in the road.
One recent morning, he drove down a dusty private drive lined with orange groves. A few weeks earlier, a resident had called him on his cell phone to report a suspicious van there. The people inside seemed to be taking pictures of horses.
These calls had been common lately for Hendrickson, as they’d been for authorities in Pasco and Marion counties. He headed to the spot that the neighbor reported. When he arrived, the van was still there — full not of horse thieves but of bird-watchers.
“And that’s fine,” Hendrickson said. “But if you don’t call us, we have no chance.”
The Palmetto case had struck Hendrickson as strange. Manatee County was the one place in Central Florida that had a precedent for these crimes, the 2015 butchering of Phedras de Blondel, a show jumper that the Stephens family had just bought from a breeder in France for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nobody was ever arrested.
In the latest incident, there was video. A trail camera on the property had captured the suspected horse killer in unusual clarity as he shined his phone’s flashlight through the slats of a stall.
The man wasn’t distinctive looking — he wore glasses, work boots, a light stubble — but the video clearly showed his face.
“We were excited,” Hendrickson said. “‘Holy cow, we got video! We’ve got a suspect!’”
Deputies released the video to the media. They expected tips to spill in. Instead, they heard nothing. Weeks went by, and then a month, without any leads.
He kept other departments abreast of the investigation via a statewide group, the Florida Agricultural Crimes Intelligence Unit, and they shared information in return. But nobody had much to go on: With only one video, they didn’t know if the killings were the work of a single person, a group or totally unrelated parties.
Hendrickson knew there had to be a demand for horse meat, but there was no underground slaughterhouse on the Sheriff’s Office’s radar, nothing to link to the killers.
“At some point,” he said, “I would have to think we will come up with a suspect.”
Horse slaughter has historically had a strong foothold in South Florida, said Richard Couto, an activist who’s one of the foremost experts on the subject. He believes inaction by law enforcement and prosecutors has emboldened these killers to do more work in Central Florida.
Couto started investigating horse slaughter in South Florida more than a decade ago while with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. After leaving that organization, he founded the Animal Recovery Mission, whose members have gone undercover. One of his early operations, in South Florida’s C-9 Basin, led authorities to break up dozens of illegal slaughterhouses and animal fighting rings.
Couto feels authorities have stymied his operations in the middle part of the state, he said. After he uncovered a slaughter operation in Hillsborough County in 2011, one man pleaded guilty to several state and federal charges, but Couto thought more people should have been charged. In 2018, he publicly butted heads with prosecutors and deputies in Lee County, who contended that Couto interfered with their operations and illegally recorded audio. He refuted the allegations.
“Those two syndicates, Lee County and Hillsborough, have grown,” he said. “We know that there are really huge amounts of horse meat on the black market. … All those people are roaming free right now.”
Couto estimated there are upward of 500 illegal horse slaughter operations in Florida. Despite being taboo in the U.S., horse meat has roles in cuisines across the world, and Couto said he’s learned that many in Florida want it because they believe it has medicinal qualities. He said the demand for black-market meat can push prices to $40 per pound.
Most of those operations involve horses being stolen or bought cheaply, then taken to centralized slaughterhouses, he said. One-off killings make up “a very small percentage” of the death toll. But he worries that the killings will become more common without substantial law enforcement action. Demand, he said, is increasing.
• • •
After Phedras de Blondel was killed in 2015, the Stephenses locked their barn down. Steve Stephens had been in the horse business for 50 years, competing in show jumping from his teen years and later designing Olympic courses; his wife, Debbie, was a record-breaking show-jumping rider who ran a 30-acre training facility, Centennial Equestrian Farm. Neither of them had ever encountered the kind of violence that befell Phedras.
The Stephenses run a major equestrian center, and Steve said he was able to hire private security. He upgraded the barn’s infrastructure — if invaders wanted to steal a horse, they’d need a cutting torch. He keeps in touch with the Sheriff’s Office, asking that deputies drive by the farm when he and Debbie plan to be out of town.
He didn’t think Phedras’ killers would come back, but he couldn’t be sure.
The death of the neighbors’ horse struck him: The circumstances were almost identical. The video deputies later released was “the most exciting thing I’ve seen in five years,” Stephens said.
“That guy must’ve fainted if he saw his picture on the news.”
Few horse owners can afford private security.
Samantha Villarreal’s family bought Jayda, the horse killed in Bushnell, when Villarreal was a teenager and Jayda was a few months old. Villarreal felt stuck in the middle of a transitional phase, as she hurtled toward the end of high school without a clear idea of what she wanted to do next. Jayda gave her stability.
“Seeing her as a baby and watching her grow up was something that I was really drawn to,” she said. “That’s what I really was looking for — something all-encompassing.”
Jayda was loyal and inquisitive, Villarreal said. When she worked at the farm where Jayda was boarded, the young horse followed her around like a little kid.
The two months since Jayda’s killing have been brutal at times, she said. Her next door neighbors have horses. At night, she dreams of someone walking down the road, coming for them.
Villarreal had paid to have Jayda boarded at farms for all of her 11 years — her family never had enough space to have the horse on their own property. But last year, she and her mom started looking, and in December, they closed on a house with six acres.
Two days later, Jayda went missing. They found her corpse later that day.
• • •
Brena Kramer stopped sleeping through the night. After dinner, she’d settle into a wicker chair on the screen porch, next to a table with a small statue of an angel holding sunflowers. As darkness surrounded the rehab, she’d turn off her phone and put away her pack of Newports. No light but the moon.
An intense focus overtook her. She stayed awake until dawn neared and the horses needed food, but she never tired. If whoever attacked her horses came back, she wanted to catch them.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Kramer sat again in the wicker chair on the big back porch and looked out at the barn. On the other side of the back door, her whole life was packed up.
Kramer had planned, even before the attack on her horses, to move away. An investor had pulled out a few months earlier. And, anyway, the 24-hour-a-day strain of running the rehab had worn Kramer down. She’d planned to take her time finding homes for the remaining horses, looking for the perfect property for a smaller operation and being set up somewhere new by springtime.
But the attack disrupted her sense of security. Her friends told her she looked awful from staying up all night and barely eating. Ultimately, she moved a few horses, resolved to keep the remaining three and found temporary housing up the road. She would board her horses with a friend until she found something permanent.
“I feel like I’ve been kicked in the teeth,” she said.
She walked over to the barn with a sack of carrots. Gus, the horse who’d been roped during the attack, was normally eager and affectionate: When young girls came to the center, Kramer said, Gus would be the first in line to have his coat brushed. Now, weeks after the attack, he hung back as the other two horses gobbled their snacks.
“Gussy — come here, Gussy,” she cooed. As he moved in close, she could see the broken veins from the roping still lining his face. “He’s a little bit leery still.”
Back on the porch, she watched the horses move out into the pasture. Normally, she said, they would’ve spread out across the wide expanse of grass. But now they clustered close to the fence.
It may have looked sweet and pastoral, the horses walking almost in lockstep. But Kramer knew well enough to see: Something was wrong with this picture.
Senior Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.