Oklahoma quarter horse champion pleads not guilty to misappropriating $53M from Illinois city

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)— An Illinois woman well known in the local quarter horse circuit faces charges that she supported her championship program with embezzled money.

Rita Crundwell, who won the last eight top titles at the American Quarter Horse Association’s annual championship in Oklahoma City, has pleaded not guilty to misappropriating more than $53 million from the city of Dixon, Ill., where she worked as comptroller.

Eighty high-value quarter horses were sold at an online auction earlier this week, fetching more than $1.6 million. A live auction Sept. 23-24 at Crundwell’s ranch in Dixon will help the U.S. Marshals Service to liquidate the remaining of Crundwell’s 300-plus horses.

Crundwell was arrested by FBI agents in April, accused of siphoning public funds into a secret bank account opened in 1990 to help support her lavish lifestyle, including her successful horse breeding operation.

Federal prosecutors contend she spent the funds on jewelry and cars, including a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette Roadster, and on horses.

Crundwell won 69 world championships as an owner and 47 as an exhibitor. She also won the Oklahoma City Leading Owner Award — presented to the owner who earns the most points overall at the annual championship show — for the last eight years straight, according to American Quarter Horse Association results.

“Rita was well known because she had been successful for an extended amount of time,” said Jim Bret Campbell, the Quarter Horse Association’s senior director of marketing and public relations.

“It is a very viable way of life and it’s a way of life many people enjoy, but just because you have one individual who falls outside of that doesn’t meant that the whole industry is painted with the same brush,” he told The Oklahoman (http://is.gd/gP1Mt0).

Quarter horses are prized for being able to run short straightaways faster than any other. In the halter class, in which Crundwell enjoyed her success, prizes are awarded based on breed ideals and the look and structure of the animal.

Campbell said a championship purse can be worth $15,000 to $20,000.

Wayne Halverson, who sells and trains quarter horses at his ranch between Edmond and Guthrie, said Crundwell was well known for her elaborate setup at competitions across the country.

“You’ll find a lot of people have either a nice motor home or a nice trailer, but she had a nice everything — a motor home, a nice truck and trailer, another trailer that would haul her clothes and another for hauling equipment. She was probably a little more extravagant than most.”

He said the quarter horse industry can be a lucrative one for successful breeders and owners, but like any business, it takes careful planning and budgeting to sustain. He believes the glory of her success may have pushed Crundwell to expand her operation beyond its means.

“It was kind of like people start playing golf and pretty soon they’re playing golf more days per week, pretty soon it kind of overtakes their time,” he said. “She just really enjoyed showing and enjoyed the horses; I don’t think it was for financial gain.”

Court documents indicate Crundwell took 12 weeks of unpaid vacation from her city hall job in 2011.

Crundwell has agreed to allow her horses to be auctioned while the case against her is pending, said Lynzey Donahue, spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals Service.

Proceeds raised at the two auctions will be put into an escrow account until the conclusion of the case, Donahue said.

“With assets like these that quickly depreciate, it’s in our best interest to forfeit them and get them sold because it’s costing us about $200,000 a month to maintain the horses,” she said.

In addition to horses, about 250 bridles, bits and reins and 17 saddle pads, blankets and saddle covers will be included in the live auction later this month.

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