HEBER-OVERGAARD, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - The killer strikes in January. Depending on who you believe, there are as many as 37 victims. The targets are wild horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The shooter often leaves the injured animals to suffer in the wild, bleeding to death.
"I feel like there's a level of evil in this person. You know, it's just hard to describe. I would say a monster. This person is a monster," said Betty Nixon, who is one of a handful of wild horse advocates, mostly women, who have set out to catch the killer.
This is the story of the Heber wild horses, the person who has shot and killed dozens of them over the past three years, and the effort to bring the killer or killers to justice.
"We figure in two days, they came through and just shot every horse they could see. They ran up and down these roads and shot horses," said Robin Crawford, as she watched a band of the horses in the distance.
The Heber wild horses are protected by the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. They roam an area of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, near the Heber-Overgaard area. The horses draw curious onlookers, animal lovers, and photographers from around the world.
"I describe them as beautiful and magnificent," said Nixon.
But not everyone in this community appreciates the horses as much.
Some hunters and ranchers have referred to them as a nuisance, eating grass they would rather go to cattle or wild game.
"They believe the horses are competing. The more horses, the less cattle are allowed," said Crawford.
Crawford, Nixon, and other members of their group have collected examples from social media that show some people in the community express support for the shooter. They refer to him or her as "Legend."
"It's hard to believe that they view him as a hero because he's getting rid of the horses that they want gone from the forest," said Nixon.
Because the shootings have taken place in a National Forest, the US Forest Service is in charge of the investigation. Forest Supervisor Anthony Madrid told CBS 5 Investigates that the law enforcement arm of his agency is actively investigating the deaths and that the Forest Service takes this seriously. But he said he could not release any details of the investigation.
The women who advocate for the wild horses say they don’t think law enforcement officers are doing everything they can to catch the killer, and they believe he is dangerous.
“I would say that anybody that can do this to innocent animals is dangerous,” said Nixon.
Nixon and Crawford are concerned that the shooter may target more horses this year. Last month, four horses were shot and killed. But in January of 2020, the number was 15.
“I worry, especially last year there were two separate complete bands shot and killed. I worry that four horses isn’t enough for this monster,” said Nixon.
There is a $5,000 reward offered for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the shooter or shooters.