Steve and Debbie Stephens have been faced with more questions than answers since their newly imported show jumper Phedras de Blondel was removed from his stall and butchered on their property at Imperial Farms Equestrian Center in October, but one thing that they can feel confident in is that they have taken the correct measures to make their farm safe.

During the week of Dec. 21, the Stephenses’ security system detected a man with a flashlight in their barn in the early hours of the morning, but the alarms that went off scared the intruder away, and no horse was touched. Their newly installed laser trip lines set off the alarms, and a review of their security camera footage revealed a male figure on site. 

ABC Action News first reported the incident, stating it is believed the intruder was targeting another recently imported horse, one that had originally been scheduled to ship over with the ill-fated Phedras de Blondel. 

The Tampa Bay news outlet also reported there is speculation these horses are being targeted for the “clean” bill of health they received when clearing European quarantine to ship to the United States.

Steve, however, is leaving the speculation up to the professionals. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office has taken over the case.

“The sheriff’s department came in and asked us, ‘Can we have this case for a month?’ ” Steve said. “We said yes; these guys are professionals. So we turned it over to them, and they actually asked us to leave the barn while they came over to install some equipment, so that nobody knew what they were doing. Without me interfering with what they’re doing, I just have to let them do what they’re going to do. It’s in their hands now.

“With our security plus their security measures, we hope we can try to get the identity of the criminals,” he added.

Steve has gone to great lengths to implement enhanced security measures at Imperial Farms since October, most notably the laser trip lines, already proving their worth at $15,000. He also installed locked steel railings in the barn aisles.

“We have a fantastic security system that we have found with the laser beams that set off the alarms,” Steve said. “It’s four beams. If you break them, it’ll set the alarm off immediately to sirens and flashing lights. You’ll think the police are already there; there are flashing lights all over the place. 

“If you cut the power, there’s a backup battery pack, and if you beat on it to try to break it, an alarm goes off on it as well. Basically you can’t disarm it,” he continued. “If you forget to turn it on, it resets itself and turns itself back on. If you turn it off with a key, it records the key that turned it off. If you give a key to an employee and he leaves without giving it back, you can deactivate that specific key, and if that employee comes back and tries to use that key to open the kiosk, it won’t open, but the system will record that he came back and tried to use it. It’s got a lot of great features.”

There are also human resources. Steve and Debbie, along with other organizations, are working to make changes in the judicial system to create harsher penalties for criminals who perform horse slaughter acts. The couple has also hosted both a surveillance specialist and an FBI agent, who gave a lesson on criminal behavior, to their property. They even hired off-duty deputies to patrol the area on random nights throughout the week.

“We hired them out from the sheriff’s department,” Steve said. “The investigators on the case love horses and are involved with horses. They’ll go down at night in an unmarked vehicle and scope the area out. Other deputies are in position at the fire station. A lot of stuff has gone through, and we’ve learned a lot, and we have a lot [of knowledge] to offer anybody else.”

Debbie hopes to share some of that knowledge at a seminar in Wellington, Fla., during the winter circuit. Steve said his wife is working with the Animal Recovery Mission, a nonprofit investigative organization, to organize such a seminar at the Winter Equestrian Festival.

“You can’t be passive; you have to pay attention,” said Steve. “You need to go to different measures and think like a little bit like a criminal to catch a criminal.

“We have to impress upon [the horsemen in Wellington] how important it is when you bring these horses to the circuit,” he added. “You’re bringing the horses right to these [criminals].”