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DIXON, Ill. — If Rita Crundwell stole $53 million from taxpayers here, as federal authorities claim, the former comptroller’s discreet spending and success as a horse breeder helped dampen local suspicions.
Many people in Dixon, from the mayor to a bartender at one of Crundwell’s hangouts, thought the 59-year-old’s accumulation of horses and property in the town of 15,733 people was the result of her breeding-business savvy.
But federal investigations into her assets revealed hundreds of horses in 14 states, luxury homes and cars, jewelry and other high-dollar purchases.
“I didn’t know anything about the $2 million RV,” Dixon Mayor Jim Burke said of another of Crundwell’s assets. “I’ve since learned about some pretty lavish parties she had at horse shows in Florida with that big motor home and her expensive horse trailers.”
The U.S. Marshals Service is moving to return Crundwell’s massive inventory of horses, their offspring — even embryos and semen — back into cash for the city of Dixon.
Strict rules will govern the upcoming public auction of her assets, and Burke hopes the return on taxpayers’ unapproved investments will start to pay off before the first mare is sold.
“It is my understanding it’ll be one of the largest horse sales in the history of the country,” he said. “People will come from all over and stay for days. It’s economic development at its worst.”
Burke said he thinks Crundwell maintained a “ruse” to help hide her decades of stealing, which federal prosecutors say she managed by moving city money into private accounts.
“For example, the Budweiser Clydesdales were in town, and I was asked about a place to keep them overnight,” he said. “I asked Rita about keeping them out at the ranch on Red Brick (Road).
“She said, ‘Let me think about that.’ Then, the next day, she said, ‘I got overruled on that.’”
The mayor said he thinks the reply was intended to give him the impression Crundwell was not in charge of the ranch, which requires a security code for access through gates that are personalized with her initials.
He since has learned she was keeping nearly 300 horses there, and every one of the animals is on the Marshals Service’s list of assets in forfeiture.
Elaine Bruns, a bartender at Shamrock Pub, about a half-mile from one of Crundwell’s homes, said she frequented the small bar, which has low-slung ceilings, 10 barstools and a regular lunch crowd.
“She was always very nice,” she said of Crundwell. “Her tipping was OK. It depended on the day. I thought she got her money from the horses. I truly believe some of her family didn’t know what was going on.”
Crundwell’s list of assets includes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, but one of the owners of a Dixon jewelry store said she never shopped there.
Mike Venier, of Venier’s Jewelry, speculated a policy at his family-owned business may have turned Crundwell away: “We don’t take American Express.”
She is alleged to have charged more than $2 million on her personal American Express card, including more than $300,000 in jewelry.
Venier, whose jewelry store is just one block from City Hall, also speculated on how Crundwell may have gotten away with the crimes for which she is accused.
“I think we trusted to a fault,” he said. “I think that’s the bottom line: good, old-fashioned, small-town trust.
“At least the leak has stopped. That’s a positive for us.”
The mayor said trust wasn’t the only factor at play.
“She never wore that jewelry around City Hall,” he said. “Never.”
If she had, it likely would have stood out.
Crundwell’s office was just down the hall from Burke’s second-floor office, where bulges in the carpet give away large spots where adhesive has dried. Furniture is dated, and ceiling tiles and wallpaper are stained from water leaks.
Two of Crundwell’s Dixon properties are just down the road from one another.
Her longtime home on Route 52 East has the same punch-code security system as the entrances to the ranch on Red Brick Road.
Both properties are surrounded by fences, and the house is situated in such a way that it is protected from views from the street. At the ranch, about a dozen miniature stables dot the manicured grounds. Even the crop of corn across the gravel road appears to be doing well, its stalks shoulder height.
Some of the horses’ names: Have Faith in Money, Packin’ Jewels, RC Tilted Palace and Money Is Hot.
“Somebody’s going to pay a lot of money for some of those horses,” predicted Marcia Freeman, a Sycamore, Ill., horse-farm owner, who said she has been doing business with Crundwell for 12 years. “A couple of her studs, like Good I Will Be, will go for $250,000 to $500,000.”
There also is considerable value in the horse saddles that are expected to go up for auction this summer.
The Marshals Service has listed 10 “Phil Harris saddles” in its auction inventory.
Mabelene Harris, of North Carolina-based Harris Leather & Silverworks, estimated Crundwell paid $18,000 for some of them, adding that she knows of at least 13 saddles her company made for Crundwell.
“Some of them are very expensive,” she said of the custom-made riding gear. “Our saddles have an excellent resale value.
“We’re going to miss all that money she spent with us. I sure feel sorry for the folks in that town.”
Mayor Burke said he is hoping those high resale values — on hundreds of horses, dozens of saddles, homes, cars, trucks, trailers and land — will help Dixon begin to dig out.
Asked what his response would be if Crundwell’s investments actually paid off big for Dixon, Burke said, “That would be wonderful! Maybe we could go up and testify on her behalf.
“I keep thinking: She had to have known this would all come crashing down.”