Update: Woman Allegedly Spent Stolen Millions on Horses

By Jason Keyser from multiple sources

“She has a trophy case that you wouldn’t believe”

Rita Crundwell accepting award in '09

DIXON, Ill. — The small-town bookkeeper dazzled friends and co-workers with invitations to her immaculate horse ranch and home, where she displayed trophies hauled back from world championship exhibitions and visitors in cowboy hats arrived to buy some of the best-bred horses in the nation.

“She has a trophy case that you wouldn’t believe — actually a room,” said Stephanie Terranova, who worked with Rita Crundwell for 15 years at city hall and attended her parties and auctions. “You wouldn’t believe the different people that came. We don’t have a lot of that type of thing around here. … Cowboy boots, cowboy hats and southern drawls.”

The gulf between Crundwell’s two worlds was breathtaking, and her colleagues and neighbors never guessed how the two entwined: Crundwell is accused of using her modestly paid town hall job to steal their tax dollars, support an extravagant lifestyle and win national fame as a breeder.

Federal prosecutors say Crundwell, 58, who handled all of the city’s finances, embezzled a staggering $30 million in public funds from Dixon, the boyhood home of the late President Ronald Reagan.

In a criminal complaint, they say they’ve obtained bank records that document each step she took in shifting taxes and other public funds through four city bank accounts before hiding them in a fifth account no one else knew about. Still, they are trying to figure out how she kept the scheme a secret, even from outside auditors, for at least six years. It unraveled only when a co-worker filling in for Crundwell while she was on an extended vacation stumbled upon the secret bank account.

Crundwell had an encyclopedic knowledge of city business down to which drawer contained a particular document, said Mayor James Burke, who recalled feeling uneasy about the city comptroller’s growing wealth.

“There wasn’t anything to hang my hat on,” said Burke, who has known Crundwell since she was a teenager. “Rita, she is a very, very smart person. I mean she is almost brilliant … which I think probably was one of the reasons that a lot of people got bamboozled with her.”

On Monday, the city fired Crundwell, who was arrested by FBI agents April 17 on a charge of wire fraud and later freed on a $4,500 recognizance bond. She could enter a plea at a May 7 status hearing. Her lawyer, federal public defender Paul Gaziano, refused to comment on the case. Phone messages left at numbers listed for Crundwell’s Dixon home and ranch were not returned.

Her arrest stunned Dixon, a small city along a picturesque vein of the Mississippi River about a two-hour drive west of Chicago in Illinois farm country.

“People just don’t understand it, just how $30 million could …,” cafe-bookstore owner Larry Dunphy said, trailing off at the thought of it.

Of the millions Crundwell is accused of funneling into the secret account, only six checks totaling less than $154,000 were ever spent on city business, made out to a sewage fund and a corporate fund, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Pedersen.

The rest, prosecutors say, went to her personal and business expenses, including her horse farms in Dixon and just across the Wisconsin state line in Beloit. Agents searching her home, office and farms seized seven trucks and horse trailers, three pickup trucks, a $2.1 million motor home and a Ford Thunderbird convertible.

While Crundwell had other indulgences, court documents indicate most of the stolen money was lavished on her beloved horses. She bought trucks and trailers to haul them around, including a Featherlite Horse Trailer for about $259,000, according to the criminal complaint.

Crundwell grew up in Dixon, playing baseball and surrounded by the outdoors and animals from an early age on her family’s farm. At 17, she started at City Hall in a work program for high school students.

She stayed, serving as treasurer and becoming comptroller in the early 1980s. She oversaw the finance and accounting department and its two clerks, including Terranova, in a modest building in Dixon’s quaint, historic downtown along the fast-flowing Rock River.

“She was wonderful to work with,” said Terranova, a deputy clerk who watched as Crundwell’s breeding business rapidly outgrew a small barn and pasture by her house and expanded to the Meri-J Ranch in Wisconsin and more recently to an immaculate 100-acre ranch on Red Brick Road, a few miles from her Dixon home.

Crundwell is deeply involved in the care of the horses, even braiding their manes and — when the farm was still small enough — running back and forth from City Hall to handle chores herself, Terranova said.

Crundwell’s breeding program has produced 52 world champions in exhibitions run by the American Quarter Horse Association in Amarillo, Texas, the world’s largest equine breed registry and membership organization.

14 comments on “Update: Woman Allegedly Spent Stolen Millions on Horses

  1. Rita has dropped hundreds of Quarter Horse foals into the market each year during her time as a breeder, while the MAJORITY (around 70,000) of horses that head to slaughter each year are QUARTER HORSES. All of the money taken from Dixon and the townspeople. Money that could have been spent on a better hospital, higher pay for teachers, new books for school children, street repairs and a more expansive library and more. What a sad deal.

  2. Although I think anyone who lavishes good care on their horses is a good person; I am outraged at the audacity of this woman to steal from her town and fellow citizens.

    Somewhere in her past she went off the rails and lost her moral compass. What kind of family did she come from?

    This doesn’t make any sense. As I said before, why didn’t the people she worked with question her grand lifestyle? They just could not have been that stupid. Anyone with half a brain would know that you cannot sustain that kind of lifestyle on her salary.

    Since it is a small town, they also would know that she was not an heiress, and had no other source of income. This is a case of the entire city government and citizens ignoring the most blatant thievery right in their midst.

  3. I can’t believe, no one wondered why a person making $80,000.00 a year could afford a 2+ million dollar motor home and $450,000.00 on 2 Mack-type trucks and horse trailer. Eighty thousand a year is fuel in those trucks! I hope she rots in jail and hell. People go without to pay their taxes. Skip vacations, remodeling their homes, etc. This witch took and lived like a queen. Hopefully she becomes somebody’s queen in prison for a very longggg time. I can’t believe her husband/partner and family didn’t know what she was doing. They also should be held accountable.

  4. It’s really sad that she took advantage of her position and the people of Dixon. Also, the over breeding of Quarter Horses, while knowing the horrible fate of the foals, is extremely cruel and shows a real lack of compassion. Obviously the only compassion she possessed was for herself!

  5. The article makes her sound like a horselover, but it’s crap. I rode horses that came from that farm – they were good and scared. I attended a clinic her boyfriend put on about how to fit up halter horses – it apparently had a lot to do with putting a chain on them and snapping it repeatedly to run them backwards around the arena. These people are not good horseowners, I would bet money they are pro-slaughter and while they’re arresting Rita, I sure hope they arrest her boyfriend Jim McKillips who ran auctions where horses went to kill for years and years at Meri-J and is probably doing it still.

  6. The IRS ought to take those trophies and prizes, melt them down and give the proceeds to the people of Dixon. Better yet, give the “prizes” to the people of Dixon and put them in a trophy case as a reminder monument of embezzlement, greed, stupidity and lack of vigilance. I would like a photo of a butchered equine on the hook next to the case.

  7. I think someone was a sleep at the wheel. Just exactly how does one live such a lavished life on that salary? I don’t feel a bit bad for her, but what about the poor horses? The boyfriend should be arrested too as an accessary to this. Denise, by all means pass on the information about the
    boyfriend. I think I recall that name coming up as a person connected with the selling of equines to
    slaughter. Sad and very sick especially for the horses..I wonder if the Feds comfisicated any of the
    horses. I hope she gets what she deserves while the rest of us struggle to keep our horses and monitor our budgets..Melt the trophies down and give the proceeds to a well deserved rescue.

    • I don’t know anything about the “boyfriend”. I do know those that breed and dump, especially in the Quarter Horse/Western/rodeo world, double as meat purveyors. Before I get bashed, NOT ALL involved do slaughter and there are other breed registries and disciplines that have their rotten apples too.

      It was stated earlier (first thread about this creep) that EVERYTHING had been seized to include the equines pending investigation, prosecution and judgement. Her accounts were frozen too; yes, the equines are being cared for.

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