URBANA -- Horror overtook Rick Hansberger the minute he stepped into the quiet of his horse paddock on a chill October morning three weeks ago.
Sprawled on the paddock floor after a vicious sexual assault was his family's favored horse, a 12 1/2 -year old mare named Star, considered so gentle his children rode her without saddle or reigns on their Frederick County farm.
The mare and the Hansberger family had become victims of a bizarre unsolved crime visiting farm communities west and south of Baltimore -- horse slashing.
Mr. Hansberger has been haunted by the sight of the mare, impaled with a pitchfork, her nipples slashed and horrible scrapes across her flanks, the evidence of an obvious struggle to bolt from her attacker. The mare's injuries were so severe she had to be put down by a veterinarian.
"I have not been right emotionally since that morning," says Mr. Hansberger, his voice shaking. "We really regarded Star as a member of our family, so it's as if this was done to one of us. There was a lot of things someone took away from us."
He now fears for the safety of his other two horses -- and his four children and wife. Sleep eludes him. At night he patrols his property and paddock armed with a .357-caliber Magnum pistol.
The eerie incidents have baffled police and animal abuse experts who cannot fathom what would motivate someone to sexually mutilate horses. Many horrified horse owners have begun to arm themselves.
There are no suspects in the seven Maryland attacks reported between June and mid-October. But there are some common threads:
All of the attacks have occurred at night in Carroll, Howard, Frederick and Prince George's counties. All but one were on mares.
In five of the incidents, the animals genitals were cut with what police and veterinarians believe was a sharp knife or other
instrument. In the first two incidents, which occurred in early June on a Frederick farm a mile from the Hansberger property, two horses were sexually molested. Star and a stallion named Revere Paul have been destroyed as a result of their injuries.
Because of the nature of the attacks, investigators believe there must be more than one attacker.
State police investigators are trying to compile a computer data base of similar attacks against animals from around the nation. In their search for clues, Maryland police have asked Interpol for information on a string of attacks on mares in southern England which have some striking similarities to the Maryland incidents.
Police also have requested that the FBI's Behavioral Science Center in Quantico, Va., develop a psychological profile of the attacker.
"This is a first for us," said Sgt. Steven F. Rutzebeck, chief of the state police crime analytical section. "But we plan to work it with the same tools we use to crack other crime strings. In some ways we are working with the same psychology as a serial killer."
Kathy Schwartz, who operates the Days End Horse Rescue Farm in Mount Airy, says she has been inundated with calls from outraged and fearful horse owners throughout the Baltimore-Washington region.
"The most common thing I hear people say is that they are keeping their guns loaded and their tractors ready. All I can say is the perpetrators better hope the police catch them before a horse owner does."
Investigators are particularly interested in a string of sexual attacks on nine mares in Great Falls, Va., outside Washington between January 1990 and February 1991. One horse died. No one was ever arrested for the attacks, said Officer Richard Perez of the Fairfax County Police.
Maryland police have also requested information on a 35-year-old man convicted in Loudoun County, Va., in 1991 for having sex with two horses several years ago.
For now, police don't believe the attacks are tied to occultism. Some occult rites involve using animal body parts.
The gruesome incidents have stirred high emotions among horse owners from Monkton to Frederick.
As many as 300 furious horse owners have jammed three meetings with police investigators. Another meeting is being organized for Wednesday evening at the Carroll County office building in Westminster.
"My phone has been ringing night and day from horse owners who want answers about what they can do to protect their horses," says Sandy Shaw, who breeds and boards horses on a farm near Monkton. She is organizing Wednesday's meeting.
"People are scared. These incidents have made them feel vulnerable. The horses are defenseless."
So many owners at the meetings have stated they planned to keep guns loaded and ready for the nighttime visitor that police now are trying to dissuade horse owners from taking matters into their own hands.
The calls for retribution have alarmed Tfc. Gary Bachtell, the state police trooper coordinating the investigation. "A lot of the horse owners have been pretty vocal about exactly what they planned to do with the person doing this if they come across them on their farm."
He has advised horse owners to alert local police if they believe someone has come onto their property, rather than taking action themselves. "They could create their own legal problems if they choose a confrontation.
"This thing has really caught people's attention. We had a 6-year-old child abducted at night from home not long ago, and I can tell you this has gotten a whole lot more attention than that," said the investigator.
Mrs. Schwartz of the Days End Horse Rescue Farm, says many horse owners are installing security devices in paddocks, stalls and barns, locking up gates and homes at night and posting No Trespassing signs. Fliers warning horse owners of the attacks are being distributed to veterinary offices and feed shops in counties from Washington to Baltimore and a reward fund has been started.
Ray Paulick, editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse, a Lexington, Ky.-based weekly magazine for horse breeders, isn't surprised by the vehemence of horse owners. "Most people breeding horses aren't in it for the money. It's more for the love of horses. The horses really become part of their families. It's a heinous act against the family itself."
Dennis J. White, director of the animal protection division of the American Humane Association in Denver, said that attacks are not unheard of, but he knows of no organization that tracks such cases.
Research shows such attacks have occurred in these other area:
* In the Puget Sound area of Washington state, police investigated reports of the sexual mutilations of horses and other farm animals in the late 1980s.
* Between 1975 and 1982, 22 horses and dogs were mutilated in Pierce County, Calif. Penises were cut off live animals.
* Perhaps the most well-known recent cases have occurred in southern England during the last two years. About 30 mares there have been sexually mutilated in 17 counties.
Dr. Joseph Merriam is a Massachusetts veterinarian and horse surgeon who heads the Equine Welfare Committee for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. He says that while such attacks are rare, they are worrisome for what they may portend. "Every veterinarian will run across a case like this maybe once in their career," he said. "The thing that is troubling about animal abuse is that it is a consistent predictor of later human abuse."
Many veterinarians find it amazing that anyone, even those knowledgeable of horses, would attempt to touch a horse around its sex organs without first anesthetizing the animal. Most believe the attacks were carried out by more than one person, since someone would be needed to restrain the horse.
"To do this you would have to approach the animal from behind. That's a very dangerous place to be even for professionals," said Dr. Jim Bowen, a professor of veterinary medicine at the Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Va.
"The horse would be very resistive and would put up quite a fight. Whoever is doing this must be plain stupid about what could happen to them -- or most certainly has help."
Police recommend these steps to protect horses and other animals:
* If you suspect someone has come onto your property at night, call local police immediately; do not confront trespassers at night.
* Install lights that come on at dusk in barns, paddocks and stalls.
* Install noise monitors in paddocks.
* Lock barns and paddocks at night; keep the key handy in case there is a fire.
* Note and report to police descriptions of suspicious people or cars in the area. Note auto tag numbers.
Post "No Trespassing" signs around the property.