05/09/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
ONE MORNING LAST AUGUST, HORSE owner Helen Tuel noticed something wasn't right. Gypsy, her 18-year-old mare, was standing apart from the herd at Tuel's Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center in Liston, Md., trembling, with blood dripping from her tail. When Tuel got closer, she discovered Gypsy had been stabbed repeatedly around her hindquarters. "I don't know why she didn't bleed to death," says Tuel, 51.
Miraculously, Gypsy, a former show horse, recovered from her wounds. But other animals in central Maryland's horse country have not been as lucky. Since Gypsy's stabbing, six more horses have been attacked, and two have died. Two weeks after Gypsy was cut, a $10,000 show mare on another farm suffered a slashed artery but survived. Then a quarter horse died of internal bleeding alter a rake handle was shoved into her vagina. On Oct. 18 the attacker or attackers (some owners find it hard to believe one person would try to subdue a 1,200-pound horse without sedating it first) attempted to castrate a stallion, Revere Paul. The assailant succeeded only in lacerating the scrotum. In the struggle, the horse broke its neck and had to be destroyed. In November three more attacks came in quick succession. "These horses are like our children," says a grieving owner. "Death's too good for this guy."
So far, the Maryland state police have few leads. The only hard evidence is a set of fingerprints on a broken rake, and those have yet to be identified, says Lt. David Sexton, 47, a lifelong horseman who is leading the investigation. He has uncovered two 1986 cases in the area that seem similar but doubts there is any connection to other animal-mutilation cases, including a scattering of horse and cattle mutilations in Wisconsin over the last two decades and southern England's recent unsolved "Horse Ripper" slashings, in which 42 horses were attacked, 19 of them sexually.
Meanwhile criminologists and psychologists are struggling to construct a profile of the attacker. Some investigators have wondered if Satanic cult activity plays a role. Randall Lockwood, a psychologist with the Humane Society of the U.S., says it's likely the perpetrator is a young man "who lives on the fringes of society and may be a farmhand able to gain a horse's trust." Several experts also noted the similarity between current horse slashings and Peter Shaffer's play Equus, based on the true story of a stable boy who blinded horses because one witnessed his first, humiliating sexual encounter.
Since all but one of the attacks were on mares, psychologists suspect the slasher may have been physically or sexually abused as a child and harbors a deep hatred of women. "If the individual's basic need is to express power and control," says Lock-wood, "there's a real possibility he would turn to individuals less capable of defending themselves."
This, of course, is where even greater terror lies for many Marylanders: the possibility that the killer may graduate from horses to humans. "Virtually all serial killers, from the Boston Strangler to Jeffrey Dahmer, have had an early history of repeated abuse of animals," says Lockwood. "I thought I would be safe here in the country," says one horse-country resident from the Washington area, who asked not to be identified. "But now I feel so vulnerable."
ROCHELLE JONES in Maryland