Fear of horses going to slaughter squelched
DIXON, Ill. — Her horses have the spotlight, but Rita Crundwell is not being upstaged.
The first horse in a 400-horse herd to be auctioned live Sunday at Crundwell’s ranch sold for $775,000 and had the crowd of more than 2,000 instantly buzzing.
The prized stallion, Good I Will Be, was expected to fetch between $250,000 and $1 million, said U.S. Marshals Service Chief Inspector Jason Wojdylo.
“We certainly got closer to the million, and I think that set the tone,” he said.
But the tone already appeared set before Sunday’s bidding began.
As Wojdylo pointed out, Crundwell’s “notoriety” was adding interest to a collection already regarded as outstanding by those in the horse industry.
The 59-year-old is accused of directing $53 million in city money to a secret fund over two decades. Officials say the money was used to finance Crundwell’s world-renowned horse-breeding operation, several homes, luxury vehicles, jewelry and the sprawling horse ranch on Dixon’s Red Brick Road. She is free on a recognizance bond but officially remains in federal custody.
On the grounds outside of town, dust rose up against a fall-blue sky as horse after horse was led to the sale ring under a white tent, sheltering 1,000 people occupying folding chairs. The meticulously groomed stallions and mares, many of them accustomed to crowds, pranced in front of a rotating collection of auctioneers and their assistants.
Bidders with southern drawls speculated on the four-legged inventory — their cowboy hats and boots dwarfed by belt buckles the size of the tenderloins at a crowded concession.
Tim Zeller, a farmer from southern Indiana, paused at the $750,000 Good I Will Be’s indoor stable about an hour after the stallion was sold and said he couldn’t help feeling badly for the animal.
“It’s not the horse’s fault,” he said of the sale and the spectacle at the ranch. “He’s truly a champion. She (Crundwell) is the one who messed up, not him.”
Many other horse lovers made their way to Good I Will Be, pressing their cell phones against the metal bars of his stall to take pictures of the stallion whose two “lots” of frozen semen sold for $31,500.
“I have horses, so I just like to look at these beautiful ones,” said Kate Johnson, 18, of Dixon.
Her friend, Drew Dawson, also 18, said she was taken by Good I Will Be when she saw him in the auction circle.
“I taped the whole entire auction with my cell phone,” she said. “It was gorgeous.”
But many horse lovers in Dixon on Sunday were talking as much about Crundwell as they were her horses.
Penny Robinson, of Bellefontaine, Ohio, said her husband bid on a Crundwell horse online last week and went as high as $66,000. The mare sold for $225,000.
“We’ve all watched Rita, and she does so well in the horse industry,” she said. “I was at a sale here at the ranch three or four years ago, and I looked around with my mouth hanging open. I was told she got her money from inheritance.
“It supposedly was family money.
“Has anybody told you who’s going to play her in the movie?” she asked.
The latest news on Crundwell broke last week when Lee County State’s Attorney Henry S. Dixon disclosed a 60-count indictment against her. She previously was charged in federal court with one count of wire fraud. She pleaded not guilty.
The state charges, all felonies, named specific amounts prosecutors are claiming she stole over a period of two years and four months — from January 2010 to her arrest in April.
The minimum amount was $100,000 per count, totalling more than $11 million.
Dixon Police Chief Dan Langloss said Crundwell most recently stole money the city had borrowed to pay employees because coffers were so depleted. He said he wants to see her spend “the rest of her life” in prison.
Crundwell’s story appeared Sunday to be lending extra value to some of her assets, especially those bearing the “RC” symbol. Her oversized initials are branded above several barns at her Dixon ranch, appear on gates at her nearby home and on custom-made saddles and other tack.
One of the first items up for bid was a custom-made bit, which sold for $300. The next bit was almost identical, except that it had the “RC” symbol on it. That bit sold for $425.
The proceeds from the auction will be returned to the City of Dixon as restitution if Crundwell is convicted. An online auction earlier this month of 80 of her horses brought in $1.6 million and is to be used primarily to pay the U.S. Marshals Service for months of caring for the herd.
Mike Jennings, co-owner of Professional Auction Services Inc., which handled the proceedings for the U.S. Marshals Service, joked with the audience at the outset of bidding that he could not get Wojdylo interested in buying a horse.
“I can guarantee you the U.S. Marshals Service has enjoyed these horses about as long as they’re goin’ to,” he said.
Asked whether Jennings was correct, the chief inspector replied, “I think Tuesday (when the auctions are over) will be a very good day.”
He estimated almost 4,000 people were involved in Sunday’s auction — either bidding live, online or simply as spectators. In addition to more than 1,000 registered bidders at the ranch, another 700 bidders registered online, he said.
Spectators were delivered to the ranch by the busload from staging areas throughout the city of 15,511.
At several open fields of grass in Dixon, dozens of horse trailers bearing out-of-state license plates gave away peoples’ plans.
“We brought our trailer, just in case,” said Justin Scott, of northeast Missouri. “We have one horse, but my uncle has several. My dad said, ‘I’m not goin’ all that way and maybe win one of those horses without taking the trailer.”
The auction continued on Monday. The minimum bid on all horses is $400.
Crundwell’s motor home, with several of her prized horses painted across the top, also is being sold online. The U.S. Marshals Service has not sought permission to sell any other of Crundwell’s seized assets.
The total proceeds from the two-day auction is expected to be released late next week.