A horse is a horse, of course, of course.
————–Mr. Ed theme song
Birds aren’t the only creatures who migrate south for the winter:
as days shorten and temperatures plummet equestrians from all over the country converge upon Wellington, Florida
for a season of horse shows and riding clinics.
When 44-year old Illinois veterinarian Cathy Crighton inquired about renting a barn
owned by Sohail Shahzada in late autumn 2002
he assumed she was simply another wealthy equine enthusiast seeking to evade the winter weather—he granted her tenancy without hesitation.
“This is the crème de la crème.” Horse owner Jack Saunders on the Wellington equestrian scene, South Florida Sun Sentinel, March 6th, 2003
It didn’t take the stable owner long to notice his new tenant exhibited some odd behaviors.
Despite the heat her horses were shrouded in blankets,
and though Dr. Crighton boasted the trappings
of the upper class—she owned a chic townhouse in the area
and drove a white Land Rover with customized “I PLAY DR” license plates—the veterinarian’s behavior was far from genteel:
she bum-rushed a neighbor who wandered onto the property
and shrieked at pedestrians using the public access trails
behind the barn.
Most bizarre were her attempts to cover her horses’ white markings
with hair dye and Rust-Oleum;
although she claimed the applications were medical treatments Mr. Shahzada had his doubts.
“One day I went out to the barn and found her putting Rust-Oleum paint on the horse’s face with a brush; now that just didn’t make sense—I’m no expert on horses, but I know what Rust-Oleum is for, and it’s not for horses.” Barn owner Sohail Shahzada, Chicago Tribune, March 4th, 2003
In early February 2003—a few months into the veterinarian’s tenancy—Mr. Shahzada noticed Dr. Crighton had failed to visit the stable for several days,
leaving her horses without sustenance.
Fearing they would starve, he entered the barn to provide oats and water
and for the first time glimpsed the animals en déshabillé—a brand on the flanks of one of the horses,
a dark grey gelding, caught his eye.
For the last six weeks the neighborhood had been blanketed with reward posters
seeking a stolen horse named San Diego;
snatched from a nearby paddock, the Oldenburg steed was valued at 100K
and the brand depicted on the posters appeared identical to the one emblazoned on Dr. Crighton’s horse.
Sketching the emblem on a napkin for comparison purposes, Mr. Shahzada contacted Ron Esposito, San Diego’s owner.
“[Dr. Crighton] stopped here the day after he was stolen and asked me all kinds of questions; I thought she was just a concerned neighbor—she was really trying to find out what she had stolen.” San Diego’s owner Ron Esposito, Palm Beach Post, March 3rd, 2003
Ironically, when Ron Esposito arrived at Mr. Shahzada’s stable he recognized not only San Diego
but Dr. Crighton’s other horse as well;
stolen from the veterinarian’s home state of Illinois,
the bay gelding named Scooby Doo was featured on Netposse, a website dedicated to repatriating stolen equines.
When informed of Dr. Crighton’s modern-day horse rustling
investigators from the Agricultural Crimes Unit of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office
devised a ruse to lure her to the stable;
Mr. Shahzada left a message
claiming one of the horses was ill and when the veterinarian materialized at the barn she was arrested.
“What makes it shameful is that she would paint the horses with toxic paint.” Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant John Howley, Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 4th, 2003
Though she was taken into custody without incident Dr. Crighton became belligerent at the jail,
attempting to drown herself in a toilet bowl
and spitting on a fellow inmate.
Dr. Crighton was well known in equestrian circles,
and when word of the veterinarian’s Rust-Oleum misuse and attempted suicide-by-toilet
reached the horsey set jaws were dropped and pearls were clutched in barns and paddocks from Florida to Illinois.
“It didn’t seem like she needed the money; it didn’t seem like she needed the notoriety.” Palos Park stable owner Kathy Fitzpatrick reflecting on Dr. Crighton’s thievery, Chicago Tribune, March 4th, 2003
Larceny, as it turns out, was something of a hobby for Dr. Crighton:
until recently she’d been in possession of third stolen horse, a chestnut Warmblood named Keller;
valued at 50K, he’d been horse-napped in Illinois and sold to an unwitting buyer for a fraction of his worth.
And horse thievery wasn’t Dr. Crighton’s first foray into feloniousness;
she’d been arrested earlier that winter for stealing 3K worth of pottery, orchids and teak furniture
from the Twelve Oaks Market in Delray Beach—while recovering the stolen home goods
investigators discovered 20K worth of purloined saddles stashed in a stolen horse trailer on her property.
Dr. Crighton’s failure to feed her horses for several days—-the omission which led to the discovery of the stolen animals—was a result of her inability to immediately raise bail
after being jailed for the Twelve Oaks theft.
“It’s like out of Falcon Crest or something.” Dr. Crighton’s Wellington neighbor Mitch Barsky reacting to her arrest, Palm Beach Post, March 3rd, 2003
The recovered horses exhibited swelling and blistering from the application of Rust-Oleum,
and Dr. Crighton was charged with animal cruelty in addition to grand theft.
A veterinarian camouflaging a stolen animal with a caustic substance is shocking,
but far from the most surreal twist in the narrative; Dr. Crighton’s post-arrest interview was full of surprises.
Despite being caught red-handed she would admit only to stealing Scooby Doo;
the other two horses (valued at 150K) were wandering loose like feral cats,
she claimed—she merely rescued them as a good deed.
Dr. Crighton then dropped a bombshell—-there was a rational explanation for her erratic behavior, she explained:
she was the prime suspect in a cold-case murder and the law enforcement pressure was overwhelming.
“She has been uncooperative with us for 15 years.” Lieutenant Mike Metzler of the Urbana Police Department, speaking of Dr. Crighton’s status as a murder suspect, Palm Beach Post, March 9th, 2003
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, Urbana Campus; March 5th, 1988.
First year veterinary student Maria Caleel spent her last afternoon on earth
tending to a prematurely born foal;
although the colt’s medical problems would prove insurmountable he’d outlive his 21-year old caregiver
by several days.
“She treated ponies like people treat babies.” Michael Butler, chairman of the Oak Brook Polo Club, Chicago Sun Times, March 7th, 1988
Described by a friend as “as close to a 10 as you can get,” Maria had been born into life of privilege;
daughter of an ex-fashion model and a prominent surgeon,
the Caleel family adventures were chronicled in the society pages—yet despite the grandeur of her upbringing
Maria remained hard-working and down-to-earth.
A lifelong straight-A student,
she’d graduated from Brown University with honors at the age of twenty
and then enrolled in veterinary school to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming an equine surgeon.
A socialite friend of the Caleels would later describe her as “the most outstanding child I have ever known.”
“The thing I find so charming about her (is that) so many kids today, especially when they’re born to privileged families, have no sense of the real world—this girl gave the impression that nothing was below her.” Patty Steinman, public relations director of the Oak Brook Polo Club, Chicago Tribune, March 8th, 1988
One of seventy-six pupils in the first-year class, Maria was beloved by fellow students and professors alike,
with one notable exception: classmate Cathy Crighton, then known as Cathy Mance.
Opinions diverge on the genesis of the Crighton/Caleel feud—some sources state
Maria reported Cathy for cheating on an exam, others claim the cheating incident never occurred.
Regardless of the precipitating incident their mutual dislike was well known.
Cathy would later claim Maria was jealous of her equestrian prowess,
and though it’s possible envy played a role in their enmity
it’s far more likely Cathy was jealous of the well-loved, academically-gifted Maria.
“We had a solid nucleus of people in the (first-year) class, and Maria was in the center of that.” Fellow veterinary student Bill Stork, Chicago Tribune, March 8th, 1988
As her final afternoon became her final evening Maria left the foal and joined friends at Gully’s Riverview Inn and Murphy’s Pub; she and some companions then enjoyed a late-night meal at Garcia’s pizzeria.
At approximately 1:30AM a female friend drove her home to the Lincoln Place Apartments at 305 North Lincoln Avenue—Maria resided in a third floor unit shared with two roommates,
both of whom were out of town.
The building, mostly inhabited by U of I students,
lacked locks on the outside doors although each apartment had a bolt lock—Maria was known
to be extremely security conscious.
“She used to yell at us if we even left the door unlocked for five minutes to walk down the hall.” Jodie Raccio, Maria’s Brown University roommate, Chicago Sun Times, March 9th, 1988
The course of events over the next two hours is unknown, but Maria’s bed appeared slept-in.
At 3:28AM a second floor resident contacted the police to report an odd noise—he feared a burglary might be in progress upstairs, he told the dispatcher.
Two minutes later, at 3:30AM, a different neighbor discovered Maria sprawled in the third floor hallway,
her nightgown soaked with blood—a subsequent 911 call was placed
and a police cruiser and ambulance were on the scene within minutes.
“She took all the precautions and look what happened.” Friend Lisa Bragg on Maria’s security conscious habits, Chicago Sun Times, March 9th, 1988
Floating in and out of consciousness, Maria spoke briefly to the responding officer;
at the time the Urbana Police Department declined to release the entirety of her statement,
revealing only that Maria had expressed a fear of dying and had not identified her killer.
Taken to a nearby hospital, Maria perished at 5:22AM,
bleeding out from a single six-inch stab wound in her abdomen which had pierced her descending aorta;
dying from a single stab wound is fairly rare—the assailant had either been exceedingly lucky
or knowledgeable about anatomy.
An autopsy would later reveal Maria had not been sexually assaulted and her body bore no defensive wounds.
“As far as we’re concerned, it`s not a burglary—nothing seems out of place.” Urbana Police Sergeant Timothy Fitzpatrick, Chicago Tribune, March 8th, 1988
Investigators spent days scouring Maria’s apartment,
coating the walls with Luminol and using lasers to illuminate trace evidence.
The means by which Maria’s assailant had entered the apartment was unclear;
there was no sign of forced entry and the lock appeared untampered.
Despite Urbana PD’s thorough investigation clues were scarce—a handful of foreign fibers were discovered on her nightie
and several fingerprints in the apartment matched neither Maria nor her roommates.
Authorities have never divulged whether the unidentified prints belong to several people or a single individual.
“Every nook and cranny was searched, searched again and searched a third time.” Assistant Urbana Police Chief Russell L. Brown, Chicago Sun Times, March 12th, 1988
Police Lieutenant Mike Metzler would later tell a reporter “virtually all” students in the veterinary program cooperated with the investigation with one notable exception: Cathy Crighton.
Maria’s only known enemy
consented to a single interview in which she claimed she’d been with a boyfriend the night of the attack;
the boyfriend confirmed her alibi
and the couple then immediately stopped cooperating with authorities.
Any further attempts to question Cathy were met with vehemence;
in The Palm Beach Post Lieutenant Metzler would describe her response to subsequent interview requests thusly:
“She went ballistic.”
Shortly thereafter Cathy Mance dropped out of U of I and changed her last name—she would later reenroll in veterinary school in Mississippi as Cathy Crighton.
“She remains on the (suspect) list.” Urbana Police Lieutenant Mike Metzler, Palm Beach Post, March 9th, 2003
The investigation into Maria’s murder sputtered, but not for lack of effort;
her family offered a substantial reward and Urbana police utilized every sleuthing technique available,
their methods becoming more sophisticated as forensic science progressed.
The details of the crime have been entered into VICAP, the unidentified crime scene prints entered into AFIS,
yet no matches have been obtained and leads remain elusive.
As technology improved investigators were able to develop a DNA profile which has been entered into CODIS;
the location and type of the biological matter found at the scene,
however, has never been released:
“It’s in a place where only this one person’s profile existed and it was found where we’d expect the suspect’s to be,” Sergeant John Lockard told The Chicago Tribune.
Many persons of interest—including Maria’s ex-boyfriend, known burglars and an active area rapist—have been excluded by this physical evidence but no one has yet been inculpated;
the search continues.
“To say that police are baffled is an understatement.” Urbana Police Sergeant Timothy Fitzpatrick, Chicago Tribune, March 8th, 1988
In 2001 the Urbana Police Department presented the 2,000 page case file to the Vidocq Society,
famed for its ability to solve cold crimes;
although the analysis provided by the Society failed to result in an arrest
the completed profile did have some intriguing aspects—according to the Vidocq sleuths the circumstances of the crime indicated the assailant was “very angry” with Maria.
The profile went on to note:
“Under no circumstances would Maria’s killer agree to cooperate with authorities;
the person would be hostile toward police,
even threatening legal action if asked to cooperate with the investigation.”
These traits, of course, seemed to point Urbana detectives squarely towards Maria’s nemesis, the non-cooperative Cathy Crighton.
“I stayed away from [Cathy ] . . . you see, I rode with Maria.” Trainer at the Top Brass Horse Farm, Palm Beach Post, March 9th, 2003
Dr. Crighton’s 2003 arrest on theft and animal-cruelty charges had rocked the close-knit equestrian community;
the revelation the sticky-fingered veterinarian was the prime suspect in a high-profile murder
rocketed Dr. Crighton’s legal travails into the limelight of the mainstream media as well.
Dubbing the disgraced veterinarian the “Rust-Oleum Rustler,”
journalists descended upon stables near her residences in Wellington and Palos Alto
and came away with anecdotes which invariably portrayed Dr. Crighton in a negative light.
Many of the interview subjects reported she was prone to lashing out in fits of pique,
and several ex-friends claimed to live in fear of her wrath.
“They say she’s pretty vindictive.” Sergeant Michael Wingate of the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Agricultural Unit, Palm Beach Post, March 6th, 2003
Regardless of the media scrutiny Dr. Crighton seemed either unwilling or unable to curb her kleptomania;
though she was eventually released on bail for the theft and abuse charges
she was rearrested within six months:
a police officer patrolling her Wellington neighborhood
noticed the Crighton home had been suddenly bedecked with a profusion of potted plants, flowers and wind chimes.
When asked about her new acquisitions Dr. Crighton confessed to being a “perennial manic gardener;”
“perennial manic thief” would’ve been more accurate—the items, worth $750,
had been stolen the from the nearby Green Gate Nursery.
During the break-in Dr. Crighton—never one to leave an unsecured animal behind—abducted the owner’s pet as well: fittingly, the pussycat the Rust-Oleum Rustler pilfered was named Rusty.
“I just hope and pray they keep her where she belongs so she can’t do this to any other animals—or any more people.” Twelve Oaks Market owner Cynthia Sanz, Palm Beach Post, March 4th, 2003
For those of you keeping track at home, allow me to provide a running tally:
Dr. Crighton had stolen at least $150K worth of livestock (the value of Scooby Doo and Rusty the cat is unknown);
at least $20K worth of equestrian gear (the value of the stolen trailer is unknown);
and nearly 4K in garden goods in two separate burglaries—a minimum total of $174K in pilferage.
She also violated the conditions of her bail—not to mention the fact she’d been identified as “a person of extreme interest” in an unsolved murder.
In Florida, first degree grand theft—defined as the unlawful taking of goods valued over 100K—is punishable by a maximum sentence of thirty years in prison.
Yet despite the vociferous opposition of those victimized by Dr. Crighton’s thievery she would spend not a single day in the penitentiary.
“My kids were petrified; I don’t know why they released her.” Twelve Oaks Market owner Cynthia Sanz, Palm Beach Post, March 4th, 2003
The traditional judicial slap-on-the-wrist analogy is woefully insufficient to describe Dr. Crighton’s treatment by the courts—the Florida justice system gave the wealthy veterinarian more of a gentle caress.
She eventually pleaded guilty to thirteen charges,
including felony cruelty to animals, grand theft and burglary—she was fined 100K in restitution and sentenced to two years of house arrest followed by eight years of probation.
This meagre punishment for a crime which could’ve netted her three decades behind bars
wasn’t even the most farcical aspect of her unjust desserts—once she completed her probation her entire record would be adjourned in contemplation of dismissal (i.e., erased).
Dr. Crighton would not be a convicted felon,
and despite her guilty plea on felony animal cruelty charges she was allowed to keep her veterinarian license.
“[Our horse] is like part of the family; it wasn’t like someone took our car—it was like losing a family member.” San Diego’s co-owner, South Florida Sun Sentinel, March 6th, 2003
If you thought Dr. Crighton would be grateful for her lenient treatment—quietly obeying the terms of her probation while making amends to her victims—you haven’t been paying attention.
Upon the completion of her house arrest
the veterinarian logged into a popular equine chat board and posted a faux-mea culpa which cast blame upon her victims while painting herself (pun intended) as the victim of a witch hunt.
Forum denizens were outraged—the resulting confrontation
made the Pataskala Topix forum look like a Mormon prayer circle.
During the melee Dr. Crighton claimed she’d provided a DNA sample
and had thus been “exonerated” in Maria’s murder—Urbana PD has never confirmed her cooperation,
however, and since many of the allegations she made on the board were demonstrably false
her claims should be viewed with skepticism.
“This [Maria’s murder] is probably our most important case that is unsolved at this point.” Urbana PD Sergeant Sylvia Griffet, Department of American Veterinary Medical Association Journal, April 1st, 2002
True to form, Dr. Crighton eventually began flouting the terms of her conditional release:
arrested in 2008 for driving while intoxicated in Palos Park,
she was found to be under the influence of an unnamed controlled substance.
Predictably, her probation was not revoked
and her license to prescribe narcotics as a veterinarian was not suspended.
As part of her plea agreement on animal cruelty charges
she had agreed not to own a pet for two years—unable to abide by even this paltry stricture,
she successfully lobbied for the right to own a dog, despite being derelict in her restitution payments.
It was the Affluenza effect, mid-aughts edition.
“I just wish we had the answers to the puzzles that remain.” Maria’s mother Annette Caleel, American Veterinary Medical Association Journal, April 1st, 2002
Eventually the antics of the Rust-Oleum Rustler faded from the news cycle and Maria’s murder again grew cold.
Earlier this year, the 27th anniversary of her death,
the Urbana PD—hoping to spark new leads— finally released the entirety of Maria’s dying declaration:
it was a jaw-dropper.
As she lay mortally wounded in the hallway, slipping in and out of consciousness,
Maria intimated the person who attacked her . . . was male.
“I can’t believe HE did this to me.” Maria Caleel’s dying words (emphasis mine), Daily Illini, March 2nd, 2015
Dr. Crighton might have been a larcenous animal abuser with no respect for the judicial system
but she apparently wasn’t the person who stabbed Maria.
Although Maria’s final words fail to completely exonerate Dr. Crighton—it’s possible the male assailant was acting at her behest—the revelation she hadn’t personally stabbed Maria
would likely have dissipated some of the suspicion which engulfed her.
Dr. Crighton, however, did not live long enough to see her name partially cleared;
she died in July of 2010, still on probation for animal cruelty and theft charges.
The coroner deemed her death a suicide.
“For now, everything [in Maria’s murder] is in the realm of possibility.” Urbana Police Sergeant Dan Morgan, Daily Illini, March 2nd, 2015
I couldn’t help but be struck by the radically different legacies Maria and Dr. Crighton left behind:
“Dr. Crighton went from nice and personable to absolute evil; I was afraid of her.” Keller’s owner Jolene Novak-Racevicious, Palm Beach Post, March 5th, 2003
“Every time I see a horse or a sunset or smell fresh air, or see flowers, I’m going to see Maria and see her smile.” Unnamed U of I classmate, Chicago Sun Times , March 12th, 1988
“I’ve avoided [Cathy] like the plague.” Crighton ex-boyfriend Neal Shapiro, South Florida Sun Sentinel, March 3rd 2003
“[Maria] was enthusiastic, vibrant, an inspiration to all of us; she was a positive force.” Brown University classmate Tracy Goldstein, Chicago Sun Times, March 12th, 1988
“I’m scared of Cathy.” Horse trainer who asked not to be named, Palm Beach Post, March 9th, 2003
“[Maria] left behind her a memory so bright not all the darkness in the world can dim it.” Maria’s father Dr. Richard Caleel, Chicago Tribune, February 20th, 2015
Maria Caleel, beloved to the point of veneration;
and Cathy Mance Crigton, so thoroughly reviled—in this dichotomy lies the moral of today’s blog post.
You can go through life sowing fear and discord like Dr. Crighton or you can spread sunshine and stardust like Maria.
The choice is yours, but you need to make up your mind now;
because it doesn’t matter how well liked you are, how much money you have or how hard you’ve worked—the shadows are full of boogeymen.
And tonight it might be your turn to die.