Rakish Romeo

updated 08/15/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN CANDY HEIRESS HELEN Vorhees Brach vanished 17 years ago, there were few clues but plenty of speculation about her fate. Did the shy, 65-year-old widow—worth an estimated $20 million—go into hiding after a botched facelift? Was she killed by the caretaker of her 18-room mansion in the Chicago suburb of Glenview? Was she buried beneath a fireplace in a nearby stable? "Everyone had a theory," says Ernie Rizzo, a private detective hired after her disappearance in February 1977. "None of them panned out."

Until now, perhaps. On July 27 federal authorities announced sweeping indictments against 23 people in the clubby world of race and show horses—owners, trainers, veterinarians—for various fraud and racketeering schemes. One of those charged was Richard Bailey, a former Chicago-area stable owner who authorities say had been romancing Brach at the time of her disappearance. Among other things, Bailey, 65, is accused of conspiring to cause Brach's murder after she threatened to turn him in for duping her into buying virtually worthless horses at vastly inflated prices. She lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bailey is also charged with defrauding 12 other women of more than half a million dollars in bogus horse deals.

"He wined these women, took them to the fanciest restaurants and professed his love for them," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Safer. "It was a classic confidence game." For his part, Bailey insists that he is innocent. "My client is a charming guy who women fall in love with," says his attorney Patrick Tuite. "But that is not a crime."

Friends say Brach's naïveté made her susceptible to Bailey's charms. She had been living alone since the 1970 death of her husband, Frank, a cofounder of the Brach candy company, keeping mostly to herself, consulting a psychic by phone almost daily and sending donations to animal welfare organizations. "She was a dignified, soft-hearted woman—a quiet Doris Day," says former actress Robyn Douglass, who also kept her horses at Bailey's stable. "But she was a poor judge of character."

Nor was she a woman of great sophistication. The daughter of an Ohio coalfield engineer, Helen Vorhees was a pretty, 38-year-old redhead working as a coat-check girl at Miami Beach's Indian Creek Country Club in 1950 when she met Frank Brach, 22 years her senior. Married a year later, they had no children. Bailey says he met Brach at a car wash five years after Frank's death and soon she began boarding horses at his stables. Described by one investigator as "a Cary Grant type who could take you to the cleaners with his charm," Bailey went riding with Brach, wooed her at candlelit dinners and, a few weeks before her disappearance, escorted her to New York City to ring in the New Year dancing to the music of Guy Lombardo.

Soon after, Brach began complaining about her companion. She told her cousin Edelene Henderson that he had swindled her by selling her second-class show horses. "When the horses came up lame, she told me she had told Bailey she was about to report his little scam," says Henderson. "I said, 'Helen, you should not have told him. You should have just gone to the authorities."

In February 1977, Brach entered the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to have a general checkup. Returning home a few days later, she was met at Chicago's O'Hare airport by her houseman, Jack Matlick. He later told police that he spent much of the weekend with her at her Glenview mansion and then drove her back to O'Hare to catch a Monday morning flight to Fort Lauderdale, where she was buying a condo. Brach never arrived.

Matlick, who had been the Brachs' caretaker for 18 years, was originally a prime suspect in the case. "He had the easiest access to her and the opportunity to destroy physical evidence," says Pat Colander, author of Thin Air, a 1982 book about Brach's disappearance. But with no body and very little evidence, local police never even officially classified the case as a homicide.

Then in 1979, two years after the disappearance, a spray-painted message appeared on the road near Brach's house: Richard Bailey Knows Where Mrs. Brach's Body Is. Stop Him! Please! When Bailey was called in for questioning, recalls former Glenview police sergeant Joseph Baumann, "he never said anything."

Brach was finally declared dead in 1984, and the bulk of her estate—now valued at $70 million—was used to set up a foundation to support animal causes. Then in 1989 a wealthy widow from another well-to-do Chicago suburb came forward with claims that she too had been fleeced by Bailey. Similarities between her allegations and long-standing questions about Bailey's relationship with Brach prompted the federal investigators to launch a racketeering probe.

Investigators have yet to reveal any details of how they believe Brach was murdered but are keeping Bailey in a Chicago jail while he awaits trial. Meanwhile an ornate family cemetery plot that she had built in Unionport, Ohio, tells a sad tale. Her husband is already buried there, along with her dogs Sugar and Candy. But a marker Brach had placed next to her own gravesite reads, "Father, I pray I may be worthy to be near my loved ones who are with thee." That grave remains empty.

DAVID GROGAN
BARBARA SANDLER and ALYSIA TATE in Chicago and CINDY DAMPIER in Miami

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