Just before 7 a.m. Sunday, Deborah H. Stephens, a renowned
American equestrian, arrived at her horse barn in Palmetto,
Fla., to check on some paperwork and prepare for the day’s
Suddenly, one of the barn workers appeared with unsettling news:
The latch on the stall of a prized Grand Prix-level show jumper
had been tampered with, and the horse was nowhere to be found.
Within a half-hour, there were signs of an unusual crime, then a
brutal discovery: The horse had been led from his stall and
taken far from the barn, where he was carved up so
professionally that authorities are investigating it as an
animal cruelty case carried out by an expert butcher for meat.
“He had been filleted,” the horse’s owner, Ms. Stephens, said in
a telephone interview on Monday. “The slices were so deliberate
and so well done that the moment you saw it: This was a
The discovery of the horse, named Phedras de Blondel, in a
remote pasture near the woods at Imperial Farms Equestrian
Center posed a new element in a string of recent crimes that has
involved the killing of stolen livestock for meat.
Most of the incidents involved horses being stolen and then
slaughtered in the southeast of the state, most recently in a
slaughterhouse in Palm Beach County. In the more rural Manatee
County, in Central Florida, there have been about one or two
instances a year of cows being rustled and slaughtered, said
David Bristow, a spokesman for the Manatee County sheriff’s
But the killing of Phedras was the first time Mr. Bristow could
recall that a horse had been butchered there, and the
authorities are investigating whether there are links to the
other cases, or new signs of an underground market in horse meat
that is expanding.
It is illegal to slaughter horses for meat in Florida, where
parts of the state, especially in the north, are host to some of
the equestrian sport’s top riders, breeders and events. Mr.
Bristow said it was not clear whether the Imperial farm had been
targeted. The sheriff’s incident report said the crime was also
being treated as an occupied burglary and grand theft case.
Ms. Stephens is an acclaimed Grand Prix show jumping competitor.
In a career that has spanned decades, she is known for setting
an outdoor high jump record of 7 feet 8 inches in 1983.
She runs Centennial Equestrian Farm, one of several based at the
Imperial horse complex, which is owned by her husband, Steve
Stephens, a top show course designer and champion rider himself.
Ms. Stephens said she had just recently purchased Phedras in
Europe from a French breeder to ride for several years while she
developed the skills of a younger horse who could then
eventually take over as her primary mount in the Grand Prix,
show jumping’s most prestigious and dramatic event.
She had been planning to ride Phedras in their first Grand Prix
competition in Wellington next month.
The animal, a 12-year-old chestnut gelding, had just arrived at
the farm in Florida on Friday, fresh from a proven track record
of being a dependable competitor in Europe.
At Imperial, he was not the tallest of the 36 horses boarded
there. But of the tall horses, he was the fattest: weighing up
to 1,500 pounds, she said. Authorities think that is why he was
chosen for butchery by the suspects.
That morning, the worker had peered into Phedras’s stall to give
him grain. The latch was bolted into the door but unchained:
Someone had neglected a crucial step of a two-step method that
was the barn rule when closing stall doors.
“Your new horse is missing,” Ms. Stephens said she was told. “I
Ms. Stephens, who said she was not a “panicker,” set off on foot
to look for Phedras around the farm, which is more than 31 acres
of rambling paddocks, training rings and pastures that contain
another dozen horses. Sixteen people live on the compound,
including grooms, stable hands and members of families that keep
As her assistant and others looked around on foot, Ms. Stephens
then decided to drive to the road, thinking Phedras might have
run off. As she drove, she noticed a broken fence in a remote
paddock. She told her assistant to take a look, and then Ms.
Stephens heard screams.
“She said he was dead,” Ms. Stephens said.
Phedras’s carcass was found lying partially against the fence
and ground. The head and neck were intact, but the legs were
gone from the shoulders and cuts in the torso were smooth and
“They literally filleted his shoulders,” she said.
The police arrived. Surveillance cameras were scrutinized, but
yielded no clues, she said. A length of yellow nylon rope was
discarded, believed to have been used as a makeshift halter to
lead Phedras from the stall. A set of footprints — and
hoofprints — could be traced through bushes and a field, in what
appears to be the track of at least one suspect, she said.
Ms. Stephens said there was a blood spatter located on what
would have been the way to the final place where Phedras was
slaughtered. A necropsy showed that a knife was plunged into the
horse’s right ribs, puncturing the aorta, and officials think
there was a struggle before the horse fatally weakened.
“They knew where to put the knife,” Ms. Stephens said.
A statement from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office said the
incident was believed to have happened between 8 p.m. Saturday
and 7 a.m. Sunday.
Ms. Stephens said she had found Phedras through an agent. She
had ridden him for the first time in France before bringing him
to the United States. She declined to disclose the amount that
she had paid for him, but said he was not insured.
“When I tried him it was a click,” she said. “We just had to
become a team; he was everything I was looking for.”