Bill Graham Reins In the Creeps Who Kill Horses for Profit

updated 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The victim, the veterinarian told Bill Graham, had just dropped dead in his stall. One minute a healthy stallion, the next minute a corpse. The vet had done the standard autopsy and found nothing unusual, he said. Probable cause of death: a heart attack.

Graham thought the probable cause was greed. "So I handed him a bush ax and we split the skull open," drawls the beefy 45-year-old, not the flinching type. They found exactly what he had been expecting—burn marks inside the animal's nostrils. The horse's owners had wired him to a 110-volt fuse box, stood him in a pool of water and electrocuted him. Then they'd tried to collect on the big insurance policy they were carrying on the stallion, until a visit from Bill Graham convinced them to drop the claim.

"I just told those a———- , 'The public and the media might be interested in knowing you cooked your horse.' They saw the light," says Graham. "The Fat Man," he proclaims, "will find the truth."

What is surely one of the most repulsive insurance scams running—killing horses for cash—surfaced about five years ago, when a world oil glut began to pinch the life-styles of the petrorich. Quite a few owned horses, bought at inflated prices and expensive to maintain. Most of the owners swallowed and sold the steeds for a loss. But a few cold-bloodedly reasoned that the mounts might be worth more dead than alive. They jacked up the price of the animals through a series of paper sales, took out insurance policies and launched a gruesome growth industry.

You can kill a horse by puncturing its bladder with a coat hanger and waiting for infection, or by stuffing Ping-Pong balls up its nostrils so it suffocates. You can put two Alka-Seltzers in its oats and its stomach will literally explode. You do it on weekends or holidays, when it's difficult to notify the insurance company. "The Marquis de Sade had nothing on some of today's horse people," says Joan Barkley, assistant vice president of the Rhulen Agency, an insurer that covers many expensive animals. "We lost millions."

Then Barkley found Bill Graham, an ex-policeman and security expert who was working as an insurance investigator out of Seneca, S.C. Imagine Hercule Poirot crossed with Deputy Dawg, tooling a souped-up Camaro through a never-ending Dick Francis novel. Imagine a suspendered good ole boy, with a spare tire big enough for a Mack Truck, who quotes Napoleon and Frederick the Great and has four college degrees, a steel-trap mind and a bulldog determination born of abiding anger. "It's un-American to kill a horse," says Graham. "I hate these people. If you kill your horse, look for me."

Or he will look for you. In the last two years Graham's eight-man operation has solved 80 horse-death cases and put at least eight people in jail. (Killing an animal is not a crime, but insurance fraud is.) "I work a horse case just like a homicide," declares the portly P.I. When Barkley first called him in on the case of a Tennessee saddle horse that had mysteriously expired, leaving its owner the beneficiary of a $40,000 policy, Graham, a compulsive student, went out and read "every goddamn book I could find about horses." He ran a background check on the owner, a woman whose father was in deep financial trouble. He traced the animal's bloodlines and determined that it was actually only worth about $500. And he grilled the veterinarian who had certified that the horse died of "pulmonary distress." "That horse suffocated," says Graham. "I said to the vet, 'Now you tell me how a horse suffocates naturally.' "

What he can't unearth with straight police procedures, Graham ferrets out with a seemingly infallible down-home routine. "He's a master of psychology and a consummate actor," says Barkley. "He goes to the horse shows, the local gas station, he hangs around the corral and chews on a piece of straw, and they tell him everything." Adds an FBI agent who has known Graham for years: "He's brilliant."

He can also be very blunt. Two weeks into the Tennessee investigation, Graham went to the horse owner's father and delivered a typically hard-boiled ultimatum: "I said, 'Don't lie to me, I'm too old and too fat. Somebody killed that horse and bamboozled the vet. But you can't bamboozle the Fat Man, so don't try. Your daughter's head is in a noose and she's going to the slammer. I think you did it, and I'm gonna stay on your f——— a—until I prove it.' "

The man preferred to confess. He had placed a plastic bag over the horse's head, taped it closed and left the barn while the animal slowly, agonizingly asphyxiated. On Graham's advice, the family dropped its claim. The Fat Man, an engineer's son who had enlisted in the Marines right out of high school and served as a paratrooper in Vietnam before becoming a full-time cop and perennial part-time college student, had found his true calling.

These days Graham's agency spends a big chunk of its time on horse cases, which he likes to recount in his inimitable, tough-guy style. There was the high-toned California woman who said her horse had charged into a pole. Graham quickly ascertained that the death was due to "ballpeenitis"—that is, she had hit the horse on the head with a ball peen hammer. There was the movie star whose overinsured herd began collapsing one by one because someone was putting bismuth, a heavy metal, in their salt lick; after the star had a little talk with the Fat Man, the deaths suddenly stopped. Then there was the day four thugs unhappy with his curiosity cornered Graham in a barn. The Fat Man says he pulled out the .38 that goes with him on all investigations and said, "Boys, there's six bullets in here and four of you. Someone's gonna get killed twice."

He laughs. The Fat Man is in fine fettle, barreling down Kentucky Highway 60 in the Camaro, fresh from a case in Lexington where a horse really did die accidentally. ("They were good people," he comments. "I don't try to prove everyone guilty. Just get the truth.") Already fluent in German and Spanish, he has been using his road time to learn Russian from tapes. And he's on the road a good deal, leaving "Miss Margaret," his wife of 22 years, to tend the six kids and three horses his mid-six-figure income keeps quite healthily in clover. "I call her every night and tell her I love her, and I stay out of bars," he explains. "I have a good marriage."

Suddenly Graham's mood darkens. The roadside meadows are filled with fine Kentucky thoroughbreds, their coats gleaming like satin in the Southern sunshine. It's a lovely sight, unless, like Graham, you know what could cause such a sheen. When breeders want to show the stock to advantage, "They pop 'em with arsenic," he says. "Makes 'em bloom.... There's no law against it, though."

Frustrated, the Fat Man guns his Camaro toward home.

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