On a Saturday morning in early October, a 35-year-old mare named Alfie was grazing on a hilltop in Byron, East Contra Costa County, when a bullet fired from long range struck her in the neck. The bullet severed her jugular and lodged deeply in the spinal column. A few minutes later, Alfie's owner, Susan Mabus, heard her dogs barking and went to investigate the commotion. Her three other horses stood over Alfie, licking the mare's motionless body.
Mabus immediately called her veterinarian, Renee Golenz, who arrived within twenty minutes. Blood was streaming from the horse's nostrils, and the women figured, given Alfie's advanced age, that she was hemorrhaging internally and her time had simply come. But after the horse had gasped her last breath, and the two women had cried and hugged and made their peace, Mabus reached down and lifted Alfie's head off the ground. She found a hole the size of a grapefruit in the horse's neck.
"It was huge," she recalls. "We were shocked."
A neighbor called 911, and homicide detective Dave Novelli from the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office arrived on what was now a crime scene. A law enforcement helicopter flew overhead to track down any fleeing cars.
Novelli and his colleagues were stumped. Alfie had been standing a good five hundred yards from the nearest roadway when she was shot. It was highly unlikely anyone on foot could've made the hit and run off the estate without notice. The shooter, if acting intentionally, used a scope. And if that was the case, Novelli was looking for more than a couple kids messing around with dad's pistol. He was hunting a sociopath.
Another scenario, which many in the area are clinging to for comfort, is that it was a fluke: Someone taking target practice on a tin can or paper bag missed -- and ultimately found Alfie's throat. "For my sanity," Mabus says, "I tell myself this was a random thing, a stray bullet hit her -- who would do this kind of thing? But then sometimes I also think, 'Jeez, what if it wasn't? What if there was someone out here, shooting at my horse?'"
Later that weekend, detective Novelli learned that another horse had been shot and killed on the same day in neighboring Solano County. The shooting took place just over an hour's drive north of Byron.
Horse shootings are rare but not unheard of. Lieutenant Nancy Anderson of Contra Costa County Animal Services Department says Alfie's killing was the first equestricide she's encountered in her fourteen years on the job. Open the files further and you'll find plenty such random acts of sadism elsewhere: A Massachusetts man is currently offering a $1,000 reward for information on the person who shot his mare, Lady. "Someone shot her point blank," he told the local paper. "Someone just singled her out, and we don't know why." In Hannover, Germany, authorities are searching for a lone suspect who has knifed fifty horses to death over the past four years. And three men in Reno pleaded guilty to hosting an equestrian massacre two years ago, shooting 33 horses in one night. For fun, presumably.
In a small town like Byron, one horse killing is enough to rile the citizenry. The rural landscape sprawls out in a crisscross of rolling dirt roads and bullet-pocked stop signs, but no one expects shooters to come to town with malice. Down at the local feed store, residents have been chattering about Alfie's slaying, and engaging in some small-town sleuthing.
Kim Vogley, who lives about an eighth of a mile from Mabus' land, and whose husband John helped steer the backhoe to bury Alfie, says life in the open range comes with unwanted consequences. "Sometimes you get people shooting at a cow or cattle from the main road. That happens; people just pull over to get their kicks, I guess. But in this case, it really concerns me to know that someone may be pot-shooting at anything that moves -- and from long range."
Novelli's investigation determined the bullet was most likely fired from a patch of county land due south. To access the land, Vogely says, a driver would have needed to pass a guard at his post, hide the gun, and hike in a good mile to set up for a clean shot. If that's the case, she adds, "I can barely understand or imagine why someone would go through all that trouble. But that's what it looks like they did." Vogley, among others, finds it suspicious that a misguided bullet could end up so deep in Alfie's spine. "It be hard to do that much damage if it were just a stray," she says.
Three days after Alfie's death, Mabus heard from a worker at the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals. PETA researcher Stephanie Bell offered to put up a $2,500 reward, and mailed a bundle of "wanted" posters to the owner's home. Detectives haven't determined whether the kill shot was intentional, but Bell and her group have come to their own conclusions. "It's always a coward who feels the need to abuse animals," she says. "And when it's something this horrific, we go into high gear to help find the people responsible."
For Novelli, the case has largely run cold, although it's still rife with interesting details. He's interviewed locals who might have been firing guns, and he's checked into anyone who might consider Mabus an enemy. Nothing.
When he learned about the horse in Solano County, he looked for a common modus operandi, to no avail. Unlike Alfie's killer, the Solano shooter fired at close range from the roadway. "The circumstances of the crime are different," he says, "so we're not sure if they're related, but we can't rule it out, either."
One obvious way, neighbors thought, would be to compare the bullets, but the slug was never removed from Alfie's corpse. After the initial investigation wrapped up -- and before the Solano case was opened -- Novelli left it to Mabus to decide whether she wanted to go through the grisly process. Veterinarian Golenz made an attempt, but decided only power tools could get the job done. "At that point, it would have meant dragging the horse down to the house and getting the buzz saw out," Mabus says. "In my state, I couldn't approve of that."
Since then, the owner notes, some of her neighbors shaken by the shooting -- people with kids and livestock -- have criticized her for not having the slug analyzed.
It turns out removing the bullet would have made little difference -- unless there's another shooting. That's because no bullet was recovered from the Solano County horse, either. It was an in-and-out shot.
Even if there were a suspect and solid evidence, the case ultimately would be prosecuted as a matter of animal cruelty. Killing a horse is still a property-destruction issue, so the penalty is relatively light, regardless of the owner's emotional connection. If a suspect were brought to justice and slammed with the harshest possible punishment for felony animal cruelty charges, Anderson says, he'd be looking at a $20,000 fine and six months in county jail. Given the investigation's current state, ever finding the bad guy seems like a long shot.
In the meantime, the trio of horses in Mabus' meadow hasn't forgotten the fateful day. They still stand on the spot where they found Alfie's body. "From the morning until night, they gather there," Mabus says. "They might wander from the spot during the afternoon but not far. It's like they're wondering, 'Where did our buddy go?' "
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