By JOE DEPRIEST, Staff Writer, Charlotte Observer News, March 1998
SHELBY -- They're modern horse thieves -- equipped with cell phones and fast trucks.
Debi Metcalfe is a one-woman posse, using the Internet to chase the people who stole her family pet, Idaho.
Day and night, thieves are striking in North Carolina, ripping off unsuspecting owners like Metcalfe. Though the numbers are small, authorities say reports of thefts are on the rise statewide.
They describe the culprits as small-time wheeler-dealers taking advantage of a hot market with rising prices. Family riding horses, not expensive breeds that would be hard to unload, are the prime targets.
Thieves whisked away Metcalfe's 12-year-old pleasure horse from a pasture beside their house while she and her husband were away a few hours.
Was the horse sold at auction to some kindly owner at a bargain price? Or did it go to a slaughterhouse to be sold as meat in Europe and Asia?
Seven months later, the mystery remains unsolved, but Metcalfe is still hot on the thieves' trail.
``Believe me, I'd like to quit but I can't . . . ,'' says Metcalfe, 43, an insurance saleswoman and mother of two. ``Some people might say, `This is just a horse.' But she was part of our lives for eight years. We fed her, took care of her, watched her grow.''
Metcalfe shared the information she collected about horses being stolen with the N.C. Horse Council, which represents breeders and other horse-related associations statewide.
The council in turn alerted the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which this month issued a statewide warning to horse owners.
``We're trying to gather information and find out how big the problem is,'' says council President Margie Rhodes of Raleigh. ``If it's a ring that's operating, we'll try to get the SBI involved.''
Horse specialist Steve Mobley with the state agriculture department says it's practically impossible to tell how many of North Carolina's 225,000 horses are being stolen.
S.C. authorities say a few horse thefts are reported each year, but they say tight regulations on proof of ownership keep the problem under control.
Metcalfe, meanwhile, on the Internet and through personal contacts, found that at least 15 pleasure horses, each worth at least $1,500, have been stolen in North Carolina since June.
The thefts are concentrated in the Piedmont, with a few cases in Western North Carolina, Mobley said. Most horses are stolen from pastures, a few from barns.
The problem has troubled the state before.
In the early 1980s, the Horse Council got the SBI to investigate a rash of horse thefts statewide, according to Horse Council member and N.C. State University Professor Bob Mowrey.
After the SBI made arrests, ``We thought we had this sucker solved,'' Mowrey says. ``We didn't know we had the problem again until Debi Metcalfe brought it to our attention. We found out it's happening more and more, and not just in North Carolina but everywhere.''
National statistics are hard to come by, but Metcalfe says the reports she gets from horse owners scattered from California to Pennsylvania indicate thefts could run into the thousands.
Mowrey is impressed by Metcalfe's determination.
``They stole the wrong horse when they stole hers,'' he says.
When Idaho disappeared Sept. 26, Metcalfe, her husband, Harold, and their son and daughter were heartbroken.
``It was like losing a family member,'' Metcalfe says. ``We stood there and cried.''
The thieves boldly parked a trailer one night at the pasture near the Metcalfe home, cut a barbed wire fence and led Idaho to the trailer. Hoof prints and tire tracks were still visible on the dirt road the next morning.
It was a slick job: Nobody in the close-knit farm community spotted anything unusual.
Metcalfe would later learn from conversations with other victims that thieves with cellular phones typically scout horses in pastures and then call for trailers. It was scary when she realized the thieves must have been watching her family's movements.
Metcalfe notified the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office. Detective Shawn McNeely went to work, checking out horse thefts in Burke and Rowan counties. He learned the horse market is booming because ``more people are riding for pleasure.''
Thieves ride the back roads surveying pastures, sometimes even taking pictures for customers who have preordered, McNeely says.
``They know what they're looking for. They have a plan,'' he says. If caught, they face a felony charge. But McNeely says the penalties -- anything from probation to a few years in jail -- don't deter anyone.
Metcalfe, meanwhile, faxed fliers with pictures of Idaho to traders and auctioneers around the region. She went to sales, searching for Idaho among hundreds of animals.
Metcalfe talked to folks like Estelle Rogers, whose two registered quarter horses were stolen from her Taylorsville farm in October. The daytime thieves were gutsy enough to chat with neighbors who assumed they were farm employees.
``They even let some kids pet the horses,'' Rogers says. ``It was like they could almost care less if they got caught.''
Despite all the travel and phone calls, Metcalfe still thought things were moving too slowly. That's when she turned to the Internet.
She gathered e-mail addresses off horse-related Web sites and sent messages about the theft.
``I asked everybody to pass along my e-mail to someone else,'' Metcalfe says. ``It was almost like a chain letter. The response was overwhelming.''
Gradually, Metcalfe built a network of folks hunting for stolen horses. From Pennsylvania to Virginia, from Florida to Texas, they're on the lookout at weekly sales. They exchange tips on the Internet.
Occasionally, horses are recovered, like two mares identified by an owner in February at a Virginia sale. A Web site message said: ``Police attribute the safe return to the hundreds of people who contacted the media and to the leads they received from people that saw the info on the Net.''
Metcalfe says that a tipster spotted the distinctively tri-colored Idaho at an out-of-state sale but that the horse quickly dropped out of sight.
She still hopes Idaho will turn up. But if she never sees her again, Metcalfe feels good making things a little tougher for the thieves.
``Nothing will ever compensate for Idaho,'' Metcalfe says. ``But this helps.''
Purchase your microchips from Stolen Horse International and help us continue to help missing horse victims with your purchase. We do not use companies that sell the 900 numbered microchips. All proceeds support our Victim's Service and Educational Outreach projects.