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— To find out, McNeal started by questioning the staff, including the two prime suspects: Moncada and Mrs. Smith herself. Moncada was always nearest South Pacific, and Mrs. Smith would stand to collect on the insurance. McNeal is sure Moncada is clear. But he had to confront Smith.

"I said, 'The first person anybody's going to consider is the one who has the insurance policy.' She said, 'I know that.' And she gave me the [insurance] documents. I didn't [suspect Mrs. Smith] because I hope that in 29 years I've gained some insight into people. Why would she hire me if there was any chance that I might find out she was the person that did this thing? Also, the insurance company didn't ever really question it."

McNeal feels that Smith's success as a late arrival to the world of horse competition and breeding could have generated enemies. "If you are interested in a world-class jumper, probably in the past you would have gone to Germany, paid what they wanted, and then had it shipped here. Now, you can come to San Juan Capistrano and get something of equal value. No shipping and customs fees. She told me this is the only horse that the Germans ever wanted to buy back. They offered $1.5 million. And she wasn't interested. We're talking possibly about people in the horse industry who view her as a real threat financially."

Then again, McNeal says he's also aware of people who resent Smith for supporting water conservation in developer-driven Orange County. "She's outspoken. She's third-generation Irvine. She's been married four times. She has three sons. And she's very involved with water. Maybe someone thought they could discourage her with this great loss."

If so, they got the wrong lady. That much is clear when Mrs. Smith finally returns. She believes she intercepted the perfect crime.

"If I hadn't ordered the biopsy and found out what the real cause was and then had the very expensive necropsy performed, we would have assumed he had renal failure from some reaction to [recent annual] inoculations. I think that was the intent. This was set up so it would appear that the horse died from an accidental death, so I would not investigate it."

"I'm a competitor to people who import [Holstein jumping] horses into this country for sale. I have never made a secret of the fact that the objective of this breeding program was to create an American sport horse that would be competitive with the European horses and would enable American buyers to buy horses in this country, rather than going abroad. I'm one of the first to do this on this scale."

She leads me over to the Range Rover. "And you want to know how easy it is to get these worms? Just go to the Internet. Type in 'Paul's Bizarre Worm Bazaar.' He's based in Belgium. Look! Here's how you order it."

She points to the Web site on a page she's printed off the Web. "Here is the selection of worms he has available."

Halicephalobus appears on a shopping list. "Most of these are freely available," writes the Web site's owner Paul de Ley. "Just send me a request by e-mail."

De Ley's only restrictions to anyone buying these deadly worms is they must include with their order a statement that the buyer is aware of the health risks, can handle and store the worms safely, and won't distribute them without warning the recipient.

"Yeah, right," says Smith.

But UCLA's Dr. Lawrence Ash, who's been a parasitologist for four decades, says the idea that someone could inject Halicephalobus and time its actions to be disguised by a vaccine is preposterous.

"That [idea] is so diabolically clever that I think Mrs. Smith should go into writing Sherlock Holmes-type novels."

Ash says that too little is known about this rare worm. "Even if you were [able] to culture them, I'm not certain [anyone would know when] they'd be at the appropriate infective stage for inoculating them. You could maybe give them a hypodermic needle into one of the veins and squirt in some of the worms, and maybe they would set up an infection. I don't know. Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever been able to culture this and then use it experimentally to, say, infect mice or rats or hamsters, let alone horses."

Ash says a real worry is that larvae or eggs from the worm may still be in South Pacific's frozen semen, stored for future offspring of the dead horse. This semen is potentially worth millions, given South Pacific's record. If the semen is infected, it could spell disaster for Mrs. Smith.

"The first thing I would advise Mrs. Smith to do is [have] a parasitologist look at several of those [semen] straws, to see if he sees any worms. Are they indeed Halicephalobus? Will they be mobile when we thaw them out? Are they going to be infective or not? If I was the one inseminating my mares, I'd certainly think about it."

Back at the Valley Center farm, the sun is setting, turning the meadows luminous green. Smith's vet, Dr. Matt Matthews, here to check on a new foal, remembers something strange that happened soon after South Pacific died.

A military scientist from Camp Pendleton had heard how South Pacific died. "His name was Captain Hank Gardiner," says Matthews. "He toured the farm and left us phone numbers to call. In case we came across any other horse, they would like to 'take over' the situation.

"They were even talking about somebody donating a horse so they could inject the horse [with the worms]," says Nancy Lake, the farm's manager, who was also there.

"The military had some interest in the organism," says Matthews, "and we were concerned as to why." Matthews says visions of germ warfare immediately sprang to mind.

Captain Gardiner, when reached on the phone at Camp Pendleton, declined to comment. But First Lieutenant Tiley Nunnink in the public affairs office insisted that Gardiner's visit to the Oaks farm had "no ties to the military."

Ash confirmed that Gardiner is a well-respected parasitologist who has written papers on Halicephalobus. But Dr. Matthews is taking no chances. "I personally made a decision not to involve the [military]. I think the organism is too dangerous."

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