Lakewood Ranch Herald

Slaughter of show horse in Manatee County called 'murder' by animal's owners

Steve Stephens, 64, owner of Palmetto's Imperial Farms Equestrian Center, walks to the crime-taped stall of his wife's show jumper, Phedras de Blondel, on Sunday. The prize horse was killed and butchered. Authorities are looking for the perpetrator or perpetrators. 
 RICHARD DYMOND/Bradenton Herald
Steve Stephens, 64, owner of Palmetto's Imperial Farms Equestrian Center, walks to the crime-taped stall of his wife's show jumper, Phedras de Blondel, on Sunday. The prize horse was killed and butchered. Authorities are looking for the perpetrator or perpetrators. RICHARD DYMOND/Bradenton Herald

PALMETTO -- The distraught owners of a 12-year-old prize show jumper from Europe named Phedras de Blondel are calling the horse's killing and butchering in Manatee County "a murder."

The 1,300-pound animal, recently purchased by Debbie Stephens of Imperial Farms Equestrian Center in rural Palmetto from an owner in Germany, was furtively led from his stall at Imperial Farms by someone between 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 6:45 a.m. Sunday, taken to a pen in the back of the 27-acre farm, killed and expertly butchered, said Debbie Stephens' husband, Steve Stephens, 64, who has been the owner of Imperial Farms since the early 1960s.

Debbie Stephens current

ly holds the all-time women's high jump record with a 7-foot, 8-inch show jump.

She is a passionate competitor and the fully trained Phedras, whose value was estimated at $200,000, was to be her future superstar show jumper, Steve Stephens said.

Steve Stephens jumped 7 feet, 1 inch in 1968 at Madison Square Garden in New York while a Palmetto High School student.

Besides being a farm owner, he is a rider, show manager, coach, trainer, judge and course designer.

He was co-designer of the show jumping courses for the 2008 Olympic Games in China.

Phedras de Blondel was a famous enough show jumper that the horse can be seen on YouTube videos.

Charges await

The perpetrator will be charged with occupied burglary, grand theft and cruelty to animals, Dave Bristow of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office said Sunday.

Bristow said a full investigation of the grisly crime scene was ongoing Sunday afternoon, but no suspects had been identified.

Investigators believe the perpetrator was someone wanting horse meat, knew the farm had horses and took Phedras because he was a big, heavy horse, Bristow said.

"We don't think they wanted this particular horse other than for its size," Bristow said. "We are hoping someone saw something unusual, an unusual car or truck in the area.

The farm is not that far from the highway.

"We have never had a case like this that I can remember," Bristow added. "It's grisly. There has been a case in the Palm Beach County area involving a slaughterhouse, but nothing like that here."

Debbie Stephens was too upset to talk with reporters about Phedras on Sunday afternoon.

Imperial Farms is located in the 10000 block of Gillet Road, near Moccasin Wallow Road, and is equipped to board 32 show jumper horses, who get three meals a day.

It has a treadmill for horses, helpers who wash and brush them, and the farm also has a jumping practice area.

The pen where the horse was butchered was said to be about 10 feet off Moccasin Wallow Road.

The ill-fated Phedras, who possessed his own passport, had just been flown into the United States on Friday, passed through quarantine perfectly and had only been in the country three days before he was killed, Steve Stephens said.

Horse discovered missing

Phedras was discovered missing at 7 a.m. Sunday when he was not in his stall at feeding time.

When found hours later in the back pen, the horse's legs were gone, and basically just the head and neck remained intact, Stephens said.

"The horse looks like he was butchered out for slaughter after he was killed," Stephens said.

"This was a murder. If I had to make a guess, it was someone who knows how to hunt, like hunt deer, and knew how to take a large animal's life quickly. We have no enemies. We have no idea who did this.

"We want to talk about this and get it in the light so our neighbors who have animals can be aware that this happened," Stephens added.

"These people came to butcher this horse out," Stephens said.

"They didn't just come with those sharp knives for nothing. They had all intentions of doing what they did. They knew what they were going to do. This was a horse farm. I don't think he was targeted specifically. Maybe they went by size. 'Here's a big one. Let's take this one. We have more animal.' "But to go to the trouble of taking him out of his stall, leading him down a path, taking him to the far property that is sort of out of sight, and then do what they did," Stephens added.

Although there was a security camera set up in the stall area, Stephens said he wasn't sure yet what it captured but he said he will now beef up security.

He advises his neighbors with horses to do the same.

Phedras' stall, as well as all the stalls, don't have a lock because horses have to be quickly removed in case of a fire or other emergency.

"In all our years here since the 1960s we have never had an intrusion," Stephens said.

Search of surroundings

After a search of the farm did not turn up Phedras, the Stephenses called the sheriff's office and began searching the surrounding areas.

"We looked around our facility first to see if he was just loose and running in the back of our barn with the other horses and then we called the sheriff's office," Steve Stephens said.

Debbie Stephens, out patrolling in her vehicle, saw a broken fence in the pen on the property and called a female farmhand to go and check.

As it turns out, the perpetrators made their entrance into the pen through that fence, Steve Stephens believes.

"When the girl got down there, she found the horse," Stephens said.

"She called my wife and said, 'You can't believe this.' She was emotionally just blown apart. She didn't know what to think. She had never seen anything like it before.'"

The Stephenses, not wanting the disturb the crime scene, waited for investigators to come before going down to the site of the carcass.

"We went down there with them, and that's the first I saw him," Stephens said.

The sheriff's office is urging anyone with information on Phedras to call 941-747-3011 or Crime Stoppers at 866-634-TIPS.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.