DIXON – Rita Crundwell spared no expense when she built and furnished her sprawling home with custom touches like a chandelier made of old revolvers and spurs, an in-ground pool and a baby grand piano in the wood-beamed living room.
Her massive master bedroom – with a fireplace and seating area furnished with top-of-the-line leather and cowhide couches, a 62-inch television and a loft office – is almost as large as some of the more modest homes in this northern Illinois farming town.
She built a second custom home south of town that she never lived in but rented to relatives. She paid for a top-notch horse-breeding and training facility where she ran a nationally renowned quarter horse operation.
And she did it all, Crundwell has admitted, by stealing $53 million from the people of Dixon, embezzling the money over two decades while serving as comptroller in the city that was Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home. The 59-year-old pleaded guilty last month and will be sentenced Feb. 14. She was allowed to remain free until then and still faces 60 separate state felony charges for theft in Lee County. She has pleaded not guilty to those charges.
The spoils of Crundwell’s looting are on the auction block, being sold for pennies on the dollar by the U.S. Marshals Service. Authorities gave what could be the last public glimpse of Crundwell’s largesse Friday as they took prospective property buyers and the media on a tour of her former Dixon holdings.
“This is not the way a lot of people live around here,” said Jason Wojdylo, a chief inspector with the Marshals Service’s asset forfeiture division. “It was a lavish lifestyle ... [and] while the city of Dixon was closing its [public] pools because it couldn’t afford to operate them, the defendant built a pool complete with sauna ... money was not spared.”
An online auction of personal property ends today, and includes everything from custom furniture to fur coats to appliances. Authorities already have raised $7.4 million by selling her horses, vehicles and a custom motor home. Her jewelry, valued at about a half-million dollars, will be auctioned sometime next year.
The Marshals Service also is selling the two Dixon homes and ranch, 80 acres of farmland and a house in Englewood, Fla.
During Friday’s open house – of sorts – prospective buyers and the media toured the Illinois homes, where items were catalogued and described with white tags. Wojdylo stood by to answer any questions. A few locals showed up, though neither they nor Crundwell’s neighbors wanted to comment.
The main house was a tribute to everything western, with rustic wood furniture, mirrors with bull horns, cowhide rugs and even western-themed knick-knacks. Most, like the chandelier, were custom and unlike anything you’d find in a store, Wojdylo said.
He said the agency does not reveal how much the property is worth to ensure it is sold at the highest possible price. And even though Crundwell’s plea agreement requires her to pay full restitution, he admits that the sales likely will never recoup the city’s losses.
Still, liquidating Crundwell’s assets into cash will bring authorities “closer to easing our responsibility.”
The very idea that Crundwell could rip off the community that her family has lived in for more than 100 years – much less hide that fact for so long – disgusts Dennis Considine, Dixon’s public health and safety commissioner. He said $53 million could have done a lot of good for a lot more people.
“It could have paid for city hall, it could have paid for the police and fire, it could have paid for our water and sewer treatment plant, we could have had better roads and possibly our citizens’ taxes could have been lower,” said Considine, who briefly stopped by her home Friday.
Crundwell had worked for the city about 100 miles west of Chicago since she was 17 and started to oversee public finances in the 1980s. She started stealing in 1990 to support an extravagant lifestyle and her horse-breeding operation, which produced 52 world champions.
Most residents in Dixon are lower-middle class and work on farms or in factories. And
they’re moving on from the betrayal, even if they can’t forgive Crundwell, Considine said.
“In spite of all the evil, criminal behavior, the city of Dixon has achieved a lot of things,” he said.