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In Illinois, a quarter horse queen's fall from grace

Owner Rita Crundwell 'was kind of like Madonna' in her field. Then it turned out she'd been stealing money – more than $53 million – from the town she worked for.

December 01, 2012|By Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
  • Rita Crundwell, comptroller of Dixon, Ill., pleaded guilty to stealing $53 million from the town to fund a lifestyle that included a nationally known quarter horse operation.
Rita Crundwell, comptroller of Dixon, Ill., pleaded guilty to stealing… (Alex T. Paschal, Associated…)

Ask anybody in the quarter horse business. They'll tell you. Rita Crundwell was one of the greatest owners anybody had heard of.

The 59-year-old woman from Dixon, Ill., had hundreds of horses. She'd fielded dozens of world champions. When friends of her longtime veterinarian, Tim Strathman, introduced him to other horse folks, they'd just say: He's Rita's.

"She was kind of like Madonna; she only had one name," Strathman said. "Everyone involved in the horse industry knew who Rita was."

Yet when the American Quarter Horse Assn. finished its annual World Show in Oklahoma City two weeks ago — the biggest stage in a competitive industry, one that her horses had dominated for eight years straight — Rita Crundwell and her lavish horse trailers were nowhere to be found.

Crundwell was in a federal courthouse in Rockford, Ill., pleading guilty to stealing more than $53 million from her small town. She'd executed one of the greatest swindles in the history of modern municipal government, far surpassing the $5.5 million prosecutors suspect eight city leaders of stealing from Bell, Calif.; her quarter horse empire dwarfed the lifestyle led by former Bell city manager Robert Rizzo, whose stable of thoroughbreds was reported to be in the dozens.

Crundwell ascended in horse breeding while working an $80,000-a-year job managing Dixon's annual budget, which usually ran less than $10 million.

Before Crundwell was caught, Dixon city employees had gone years without getting raises. Streets were going unpaved. Old equipment wasn't getting replaced. At an October 2011 City Council meeting, officials fretted over a "fiscal crisis" that prevented them from hiring part-time employees and had them mulling cuts to the city's 76-year-old municipal wind band, which cost about $65,000 a year.

Considering Crundwell's opulence at home juxtaposed with her day job handling the finances for a town of about 16,000, Strathman said he and others in the quarter horse crowd "used to joke that one of these days Dixon was going to open up the checkbook and it's going to be empty. But we were like, 'that can't be right, because they don't have that much money.'"

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Ask anybody who worked around Rita Crundwell or competed against her. They'll tell you.

Sweet as pie, they'd say. You couldn't find a nicer person on the face of the planet to talk to. She was the nicest person in the world to work for. She'd get out there and work the stalls just like everybody else. If you needed something, she'd give it to you; if you thought something needed to be done, she did it.

At work she dressed professionally but not ostentatiously, and drove a black Cadillac that had her initials — RAC — on her license plate. People in Dixon knew Crundwell had at least a little money, and thought she made it from the horse business. People in the horse business knew Crundwell had to be wealthy and — aware of the punishing economics of horse breeding — thought she had to have made her money somewhere else.

"One story that I'd heard was that someone in her family was in the satellite business — something to do with NASA, the space satellite program — and they just had unlimited funds coming in from that," said Kevin McCary of Mansfield, Texas, who started competing three years ago, when Crundwell was already a titan. "And then there was another story that her family was in the communications business and that they owned every cellphone tower in Illinois."

The reality was that she was raised from humble roots in Dixon and had started working for the city part time as a high school student. Crundwell quickly rose to become city comptroller, a position she held for almost 30 years.

"She knew where everything was at," said James Burke, Dixon's mayor since 1999. "I could ask her for some contracts with the utility company or something several years ago, and she would wheel around and pull something right out of her desk." He added, as if musing to himself, "I guess that was her strong point and her weak point."

When Crundwell went on vacation in October 2011, a co-worker filling in for her found an account with $267,000 in withdrawals for the month of September, none of which appeared to be for city business. Burke told the FBI, and the FBI quietly watched for half a year as Crundwell took at least $3.2 million from the city, according to prosecutors. Crundwell was smiling on April 17 when Burke called her into his office, where three FBI agents were waiting.

"She comes waltzing in here, 'Good morning,' cheerful as could be, and I said, 'These three gentlemen here would like to ask you some questions,'" Burke said. It would be the last time Burke spoke to her; everything was now up to the FBI's lead agent. "I was looking at the expression on her face and it never changed. He said, 'I'd like to ask some questions,' and she said, 'Sure.'"

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