Commentary

Edwards' "other woman" revives memories of a gruesome scandal

Originally Published: August 14, 2008
By Lester Munson, with William Nack | ESPN.com

On Sunday, as I was sitting in my summer cabin in Vermont, completely absorbed in a New York Times story about John Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter, I began reading a paragraph whose message shot through me like a sudden bolt of electrical current. The story centered on Ms. Hunter's refusal to take a DNA test to determine the paternity of her 5-month-old daughter, but that was not what startled me. It was this: "Ms. Hunter was born in Fort Lauderdale. Fla., in 1964 as Lisa Druck and moved to New York City in her 20s, becoming part of a Manhattan social scene that included the writer Jay McInerney …"

Here, I jumped up and blurted loudly to my wife, Judy: "Good God! John Edwards was having sex with the daughter of the guy who taught Tommy Burns how to kill horses by electrocuting them!"

That single line in the newspaper brought back vivid memories of one of the most fascinating stories I ever worked on, a tale that led me to trooping through show-horse barns, talking sotto voce to lawyers and FBI agents, going out of my way to meet sources, including Burns, in various hidden caves, coves and coffee booths.

[+] EnlargeRielle Hunter
AP Photo/Chuck OlsenRielle Hunter, once known as Lisa Druck, came into John Edwards' world with an interesting past. Here, she's filming Edwards after a December 2006 rally in New Hampshire.
Indeed, in 1992, back in the days when I was an investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated, I spent weeks digging into reports that slowly evolved into one of the biggest, most gruesome stories in sports, a scandalous tale about a large group of rich and prominent horse owners -- millionaires, many of them -- who were then being pursued by federal and state law enforcement officials for conspiring to kill high-priced show horses to collect on their life insurance premiums. The story, called "Blood Money," centered on the career of Tommy "The Sandman" Burns, an otherwise cherubic 30-year-old drifter who had spent the last 10 years of his life traveling from barns to stables to horse shows and killing one expensive show horse after another.

The story was written by William Nack, and in the third paragraph, he wrote: "Burns' preferred method of killing horses was electrocution. It had been so ever since the day in 1982 when, he says, the late James Druck, an Ocala, Florida, attorney who represented insurance companies, paid him to kill the brilliant show-jumper Henry the Hawk, on whose life Druck had taken out a $150,000 life insurance policy."

Henry the Hawk was owned and shown by Druck's daughter, Lisa Druck -- who has just now emerged as the femme fatale in the sordid John Edwards affair. She had changed her name to Rielle Hunter years ago. She had had her share of love affairs over the years, including one with best-selling author McInerney, who did a roman à clef on Lisa's journey titled "Story of My Life," in which the character patterned after her, Alison Poole, was described by McInerney in a 2005 magazine story as "an ostensibly jaded, cocaine-addled, sexually voracious 20-year-old who was, shall we say, inspired by Lisa."

In fact, Lisa Druck was in the back of a pickup truck with her then-boyfriend, Louis Whelen, when Burns slipped into Henry the Hawk's barn with a handbag filled with his deadly equipment.

So it was her father, James, a criminally minded lawyer and conniver, who started Tommy Burns on the way to his grisly career as a horse killer. Nack and I met Burns at a hamburger joint housed on a bridge spanning I-294 in northern Illinois in the early fall of 1992, as we were winding up the reporting on the story. By then, Tommy was singing his executioner's song to a grand jury, which ultimately would indict 36 people for their role in conspiring to kill horses -- 35 of whom would be convicted of their crimes, mostly insurance fraud. It was there, by the way, that Nack and I found out that Burns had been unaware he had been given a chilling nickname, "The Sandman," in the corridors of the show-horse circuit where he did most of his work, and whispers followed him like little clouds of shed-row dust.

As one prominent West Virginia horsewoman told me, "When Tommy arrived at a show, they would say The Sandman was around. They knew a horse would be put to sleep."

"You had no idea they called you The Sandman?" Nack asked Burns at the Burger King.

[+] EnlargeJohn Edwards
AP Photo/Seth WenigJohn Edwards was courting trouble when he began his affair with Hunter, formerly known as Lisa Druck.
"No idea," he said.

"It suits you, Tommy," Nack said.

He nodded.

This was near the beginning of what turned out to be one of the eeriest interviews I'd ever been a part of, and Nack one day agreed that it sure beat anything he'd ever worked on with me over the years at SI, from the Mike Tyson rape trial in Indianapolis to that 2003 story about why Thoroughbred racehorses were breaking down at such an alarming rate -- a story that spotted a trend that has grown increasingly relevant in the era of Barbaro and Eight Belles.

What made the Burger King interview with Tommy so memorable was the fact that Burns looked like anything but a killer. He might have been the third-base coach on a Little League team, wearing his hat backward, with a pleasant, easygoing personality and a smile that shined with innocence. He appeared enormously contrite as he sat in front of us, so sorry that he already had killed some 50 horses in his life, so sorry that he'd ever become a serial killer of horses -- Doctor Death with an athletic satchel, The Sandman with his bag of deadly wires.

I had spoken to Tommy before, in private, but this was the first time Nack had ever heard the name James Druck, the first time he'd ever heard of Lisa Druck, the first time he'd ever talked to a guy who killed horses for a living.

"So can we go over it for Bill?" I asked. "How did it all start with the wires?"

Burns spoke quietly, dispassionately, about his work. He told us about the time he had been hired to kill another horse in Florida, a sporty-looking chestnut jumper named Streetwise, by breaking its hind leg with a crowbar, but that he then got so unnerved by the prospect of killing a horse in that way -- by causing a bone-crushing injury that would force a vet to put him down with a lethal injection -- that he got drunk on gin and tonics in a Gainesville, Fla., bar, gurgling in his cups to an associate, Harlow Arlie, "I don't want to break his leg. I'm not into that."

So Arlie did it for him -- for half of the $5,000 hit fee -- as The Sandman held the horse in a rain-slick, brightly lighted parking lot outside the city. Arlie came up behind him and whacked the horse hard on the back leg. After hearing Tommy tell that story, Nack says, he can still see the picture of that scene in his mind today -- the horse falling down and clambering to his feet, trying to run and limping away, the rain coming down and the horse slipping off into the dark.

No, Tommy said, he really hated destroying a horse that way.

What he much preferred, he said, was electrocution. It was Lisa's father who taught him how to do that. James Druck owned Eagle Crest Farm, in the celebrated Thoroughbred horse-breeding area of Ocala, and he was a horseman (so-called) and a lawyer who specialized in equine insurance matters.

Jay McInerney
AP Photo/Jim CooperWriter Jay McInerney used his experiences with Lisa Druck for the creation of colorful character Alison Poole in "Story of My Life."
Henry the Hawk was a terrific jumper for whom Druck had paid $150,000 two years before. Lisa Druck owned the horse, and she had competed on his back in shows all over Florida. When Jim Druck got strapped for cash, he tried to sell the horse; but the top offer was only $125,000 and the horse was insured for $150,000. You do the math; Druck did. So he talked Burns into killing the horse and showed him how to do it, revealing himself to be a man of some experience in this venal backwash of animal husbandry. Druck then bought Burns all the paraphernalia he needed, from the clips to wires.

He taught Burns how to rig the wires: how to cut a high-powered orange extension cord down the middle into two separate strands of wire; how to attach two alligator clips to the bare ends of the wires; and even how to clip the jerry-built apparatus to the unsuspecting animal -- one clip to an ear, the second to its rectum. All that was left to do, Tommy told us, was plug the wire into a standard wall socket and keep back.

"You better get out of the way," Burns told us. "They go down immediately. One horse dropped so fast in the stall, he must have broken his neck when he hit the floor. It's a sick thing, I know, but it was quick and it was painless. They didn't suffer."

Death by such a means leaves no visible trace, and insurance companies in those days attributed most of these deaths to colic.

After Burns finished his work with Henry the Hawk, he packed up his wires in the satchel and left the barn. From the pickup, Lisa and her boyfriend saw Burns stealing away and chased after him, but The Sandman managed to escape. When the two returned to the barn, they found Henry lying dead in his stall. Lisa confronted her father about the killing of Henry, and he never denied orchestrating the grisly affair for the money. McInerney related this episode from Lisa's -- err, Alison Poole's -- life, in his roman à clef.

When Burns spilled all the bitter and refried beans about his life as a horse killer -- he squealed on his greedy clients only after he was caught and they refused to help defend him -- it simply grew and grew into the biggest scandal in the history of equestrian sports, for many of the outlaws were prominent names on the highly competitive Grand Prix show-jumping circuit and in the clubby world around it.

I knew that James Druck had died of lung cancer in 1990, eight years after he had Tommy Burns kill Henry the Hawk, and I knew that Burns had done six months of hard time in a nasty county jail. (My wife and I visited him.) I also know that Burns has since become a model citizen, has done well in the auto-parts business, owns a horse farm only a mile from the barn where he killed his first horse and spends a lot of time on his 38-foot powerboat, skimming the waterways with that unpleasant past receding behind him. I'd often wondered what happened to Lisa Druck.

I was a lawyer before I went straight and became an investigative journalist, but there was one thing my law practice did teach me. Not to sound judgmental, but where some people go, trouble seems to follow, and in wrapping his arms around Lisa Druck, John Edwards found more than his share.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. William Nack was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for nearly 25 years and covered stories in a variety of sports and on a range of subjects.