Outer Banks community angered by horse killings

COROLLA, N.C. -- The dunes just north of this remote community on North Carolina's Outer Banks look like a scene from another world.

Shells of abandoned cars dot the landscape between weather-beaten homes on stilts. Coarse grass grows from sandbars. Unpaved roads are accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles.

It is here that a herd of wild horses roams freely across 1,700 acres of private and public land. The Corolla wild horses, believed to be descended from Spanish mustangs brought here by the conquistadors nearly 500 years ago, have survived for centuries, despite the harsh environment and encroaching development.

Now they face a new threat: Last month, four horses were shot to death.

Most residents see the wild horses as symbols of freedom and endurance, and have fiercely protected them from outsiders. They cannot understand why someone would kill them.

"It's meanness at its worst. That's the only way I know how to describe what happened here," said Gene Snow, director of a group that tracks the horses.

The horse shootings, the first anyone here can recall, happened one morning in mid-November. Police believe someone used a high-powered rifle to kill a chestnut stallion, two bay mares and a black mare from about 100 yards away. One resident's mule was also killed.

The carcasses were found over the last two weeks of November several hundred feet from one another, presumably where each had wandered after being shot.

The community, which has a year-round population of about 500 but swells to 40,000 during the summer, is pulling together to help find the killer. A $10,000 bounty has been posted for information that leads to a felony conviction, which could bring up to 15 months in jail.

So far, investigators have had few leads. And they are stumped as to a motive, said Sheriff Susan Johnson.