CHICAGO, JULY 27 -- More than 17 years after her disappearance, a former boyfriend today was charged with hiring someone to kill multimillionaire candy heiress Helen Vorhees Brach.

The case of the missing heiress became a legend here -- some people thought she had been killed by her handyman and ground up into little pieces, while others believed she had lost her memory and was living on a Pacific island.

Then there was the anonymously written message spray-painted in red on a road near her house in 1978: "Richard Bailey knows where Mrs. Brach's body is! Stop him!"

In their indictment federal authorities endorsed that last version, charging Bailey, 62, a local stable owner, with causing Brach's murder. They allege he had the heiress killed to prevent her from spilling to police his role in an elaborate, nationwide insurance fraud involving champion horses.

Brach was the widow of Frank Brach, heir to the multimillion-dollar Brach candy dynasty. She was 65 when last seen alive Feb. 17, 1977, the day she checked out of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., after a routine checkup.

The police investigation originally centered on Brach's handyman, John Matlick, an ex-convict. When it was revealed Matlick had purchased a meat grinder around the time Brach disappeared, the local legend about the disposal of her body was born. Matlick was never charged.

In late 1989 federal authorities began investigating Bailey's connection with Brach and his dealings in the horse world. Authorities contend Bailey preyed on well-to-do older women, meeting them through "lonely hearts" ads. He placed at least 26 personal advertisements since 1989, the most recent of which ran a week ago in a local paper.

"He specialized in conning women who were alone in life," U.S. Attorney James Burns told a news conference. "He would work his way into their lives and heart by romancing them."

According to the indictment, Bailey encouraged his victims to purchase horses at inflated prices, draining them of funds. Later, authorities contend, he engaged a co-schemer in a second fraud -- promising to help victims regain their losses but cheating them out of yet more money.

Brach, say authorities, discovered Bailey's scheme and intended to expose him. "To silence Helen Brach, Bailey conspired, solicited and caused her murder," said Burns.

Brach's alleged murder is only one part of the case against Bailey and his colleagues. In all, 15 indictments filed today charge fraud by 23 people Burns described as "a virtual 'who's who' of the nation's equestrian industry." Nineteen of the defendants are charged with killing horses for insurance money.

The prosecutors did not identify Brach's alleged killer nor would they comment on whether they expect to find her body. Brach's fortune, now worth more than $50 million, has been helping area charities since she was declared legally dead in 1984. She had formed the Helen Brach Foundation to care for homeless pets and to fund animal welfare groups.