Is Bellagio Dead Or Alive?
PLANT CITY - The criminal charges are simple, the case complex, involving a well-known local veterinarian, a show horse he was to euthanize and a $10,000 life insurance payoff for the animal a state investigator says is probably still alive - somewhere. At the heart of the nearly 2-year-old mystery is Larry Britt, 65, a Plant City veterinarian recently arrested on two felony charges: filing a fraudulent insurance claim and grand theft, of the horse named Bellagio. Britt isn't talking, but those close to him suggest the investigation was spawned by a disgruntled ex-employee with an ax to grind. Meanwhile, his attorney, Richard D. Mars of Bartow, said this week, "It is my understanding those charges are going to be dropped in the very near future. That's about all I'm at liberty to say."A four-page probable cause affidavit by the Insurance Fraud Division of the Florida Department of Financial Services sums up the state's allegations, which led to Britt's arrest three months ago: In September 2006, Britt was summoned to Warrior, Ala., to tend to an ailing Tennessee walker owned by Wade England. A veterinarian licensed in Alabama and Florida, Britt and two employees drove nearly 600 miles to examine the horse, said to be in constant pain from a medical condition affecting his legs. Britt examined Bellagio and said the horse should be destroyed, England told investigators. Because England's daughter was quite fond of the 5-year-old horse, it was agreed it would be less traumatic for her if Britt took Bellagio to Plant City to be euthanized and buried. On Sept. 20, 2006, Britt signed and returned to Hanover Insurance a "veterinarian's report form" attesting he destroyed Bellagio four days earlier. Subsequently, Bellagio's owner received the $10,000 life insurance payment for the horse. More than a year later, Kerri Haygood, a former Britt employee who accompanied him on the Alabama house call, contacted the state's Insurance Fraud Division. Haygood, who ceased working for Britt in late December 2006, told state authorities that Bellagio was alive and well, providing photographs of her son riding the horse months after he was reported destroyed. When Bellagio arrived in Plant City, workers at Britt's ranch renamed the horse Doodles, Haygood told authorities. State investigators located a Coggins report with the name Doodles on it and naming Britt as the owner. The report, which gives the results of a state-required blood test for a mosquito-borne equine disease, was dated December 2006, three months after Bellagio, purported to be Doodles, was said to have been euthanized. Kevin Morris, the state detective who spent nearly three months investigating the case, showed Doodles' Coggins report and a color photograph of Bellagio to Donald Besnier and his wife, Britt's neighbors. "Both advised that they had in fact seen that horse also months after the Dr. had swore that he had put it down," Morris' report stated. Arrested March 5 on the two third-degree felonies, Britt was released a short time later on $10,000 bond, Orient Road Jail records show. He entered a not guilty plea April 4. A trial date has not been set. The big mystery remains: Where is Bellagio? "The answer to that is, 'I don't know,'" Morris said. "Most cases like this come down to greed. People close to the situation said the horse was sold. I never could prove that, but that's what I was told. "There is proof he Britt didn't put it down. We have witnesses who saw the horse month after month after he said he had put it down." Some of the witnesses, however, have their own agenda, said Shelly Giza, who runs Plant City Equine Rescue, which is based on Britt's Antioch ranch. Britt, she said, continued to serve as Haygood's family vet. She became upset last summer, however, when her horse suffered a serious injury and died. "That's when all the trouble started," Giza said. Haygood sent an angry e-mail to Britt in August, the day after Britt responded to her emergency call and left when he found another veterinarian had begun treating the horse. "I will make sure you regret the decision you make yesterday no matter what it cost me ... all the way to insurance fraud..." wrote Haygood. "If I were you I would respond to this email." Britt did respond, the following day. On Aug. 11, he wrote: "I'm sorry for your family's loss, but will in NO way allow you to hold me liable or cower to your demands and threats because of your grief." Weeks later, Haygood - who is also known as Kerri Harden - contacted the state with allegations of insurance fraud. Besnier, Britt's neighbor, also has reason to be disgruntled with the vet, Giza said. "He had free use of Dr. Britt's property until the rescue moved in, and he had to move his horses out," she said. "He wants this property." In fact, Morris, the state investigator, was under the impression that Besnier "is the owner of the ranch the defendant lives on," according to his report. Hillsborough County property records, however, show Britt purchased the 10 acres off Knights Griffith Road in 2006 from an old family trust. Besnier has owned the 11 acres next door since 2002. None of this, however, answers the central question: What happened to the horse? "I have no idea," Bellagio's owner, Wade England, said in a telephone interview. "All I know is when he picked it up that day, he was going to put it to sleep. I thought that's what happened." Months after Bellagio left the Alabama training barn, Morris called and informed England of the criminal investigation and the probability his horse was alive. "I was very shocked," said England. "I had a wife and daughter upset about this for a long time, then I come to find out he may not have been put to sleep." England said Britt, who once lived in Alabama, was summoned by Bellagio's trainer. Britt discussed a costly, time-consuming surgical procedure that might cure Bellagio's ailment but cautioned there were no guarantees, England said. "You don't want to see a horse in pain, and I was told the horse was in pain," England said. After providing copies of the horse's X-rays, "We got the insurance company's OK to put it to sleep," England said. "It was all on the up and up." The detective said he believes Bellagio "was definitely not up to par and could no longer compete in horse shows, but I don't think it was to the point where he needed to be put down." The horse believed to be Bellagio was last seen by witnesses on Britt's ranch, he said. If Britt is found guilty, he likely will be ordered to reimburse Hanover Insurance the $10,000 paid to Bellagio's owner, Morris said. Bellagio "was a fairly young horse and hadn't won all that much" in competition, said England, who has since bought another horse. "I don't know the whole truth myself," said England. "I really hope the vet did what he was supposed to do. And until somebody shows me a live horse, there's no reason to doubt him." THE HORSE NAME: Bellagio AGE: 5 COLOR: Chestnut BREED: Tennessee walking horse OWNER: Wade England of Warrior, Ala.
Tribune researcher Buddy Jaudon contributed to this story. Reporter George Wilkens can be reached at (813) 865-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.