MANATEE -- People around the world have come together for a horse slaughtered in Manatee County.
In less than a week, outraged donors have contributed more than $50,000 to help find who killed Phedras de Blondel, a show horse criminally slaughtered over the weekend at Imperial Farms Equestrian Center in rural Palmetto, and to help prevent future such killings.
"Phedras de Blondel's tragic death will not be in vain. He has started a ball rolling that will not cease until the criminals who participate in this horrific activity are stopped," a message on the Centennial Equestrian Reward Fund reads.
Horse owners Debbie and Steve Stephens said they are setting up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation to prevent the theft and slaughter of horses for their meat.
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Of the money raised, $30,000 is set aside as a reward for information leading to those responsible for Phedras de Blondel's death. The remaining $20,000 would go toward the organization, according to Debbie Stephens.
"He was a gentleman, a very powerful horse," Stephens said of Phedras de Blondel. "He was a show horse for sure."
Stephens said she rode Phedras de Blondel only twice for 15 minutes before he was killed. He had been brought over from Europe just days earlier, and Florida's sticky heat was a drastic change from the cold weather he was used to, so Stephens wanted to take it easy on him.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office continues to investigate the killing, said spokesman Dave Bristow.
Debbie Stephens said the new foundation's goal is twofold: raise awareness of a huge, escalating problem because in Florida and fight to shut down slaughterhouses providing the meat people are demanding.
"We don't want to just have the reward," she said.
Stephens said the people who killed Phedras de Blondel are butchers, or killers.
"Whether we catch them or we don't, we still want to continue to educate people on how they can be more diligent on protecting their horses from being killed for meat and try to eradicate people who do this," she said.
Manatee County ranchers have been deeply affected by the gruesome killing.
Craig Purcell, owner of C. Purcell Ranch Inc. in Bradenton, said the news instilled fear.
"Nobody wants to lose a horse, especially as nice as that one," the 64-year-old Bradenton resident said. "They become more than just an animal -- when you share that much with an animal, it's part of the family."
Purcell, who has owned his ranch since 1991, said he's always thought of the safety of his animals and where they are going to be in the ranch, but this crime heightened awareness.
"Awareness is the key and, of course, if we can add more safety, that would be great," Purcell said.
Phedras de Blondel may not have been killed for his meat, he added.
"I think there's a lot of competition. ... It could just be someone with a grudge," he said. "If that was for meat, it was an awful expensive meat ... It's too close to the heart."
At The Longbranch Stable in Parrish, owner Ed McAdam said he heard the news through a Facebook post. He said he immediately called Bristow at the sheriff's office to find out exactly what happened.
"It was most disappointing because the horse is valuable, whether you pay $1 for a horse or $1 million," the 77-year-old said as he sat on his ranch property Wednesday afternoon. "The person that owns it has a bond with the horse."
Nearby, McAdam's Palomino horse named Rambo stood in his stall, his long face nestled in a bright blue bridle. The humid air smelled of feed, hay and manure.
According to McAdam, whose nickname is Mister Ed, crime is creeping into the county's agricultural community.
"The necessary rules and regulations are not kept up with the safety and security that the rural people need," he said. "We need to have more people protecting the rural community."
Carol Ohlendorf, a resident of the equestrian friendly Panther Ridge community, said she was heartbroken by the killing.
"Most people who perform animal cruelty get a slap on the wrist," the 67-year-old said.
"I think somebody knows something about what happened to that horse and, when these people are caught, they need to be held accountable. ... I can't get into that mindset of how someone can slaughter a horse. It's mind-boggling to me."
Though Debbie Stephens and her husband are trying to move forward with their new cause, she said she doesn't think time will heal her wounds. She used to be afraid of her horse getting colic or suffering from a career-ending injury.
"Not in a million years would I have said my horse could be stolen, filleted, and butchered," she said. "Never, never, never. That's the furthest thing."
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.