A longtime bookkeeper pleaded guilty Wednesday to allegations she embezzled more than $50 million from downstate Dixon to fund a lavish lifestyle that included a nationally known horse-breeding operation.
Rita Crundwell, the former comptroller of Dixon, pleaded guilty to a charge of wire fraud in federal court in Rockford. She was allowed to remain free until her Feb. 14 sentencing hearing. Prosecutors have said she stole public money while overseeing the city's finances and siphoned it into a secret bank account.
Crundwell did not make a statement during the hearing and answered the judge's questions with "yes" and "no." She left the courthouse without speaking to reporters, but her lawyer gave a brief statement that emphasized her cooperation with prosecutors.
"Rita Crundwell today admitted her guilt, saving the government the burden and expense of a lengthy trial," attorney Paul Gazianno said. "Rita, since the day of her arrest, has worked with the government to accomplish the sale of her assets, including her beloved horses, all with the goal of hoping to recoup the losses for the city of Dixon.
"I think the people of the city of Dixon ought to know that."
Crundwell's guilty plea in the federal case enables the U.S. Marshals Service to start selling off millions of dollars of assets still in her name, including about $450,000 worth of diamonds and other jewels, ranch land and a house in Florida. The marshals already have auctioned dozens of Crundwell's horses.
Residents in Dixon, the boyhood home of the late President Ronald Reagan, welcomed Crundwell's plea. Its 16,000 residents are largely lower-middle class, working at factories and grain farms, and they had come to trust Crundwell to manage the town's finances with little oversight.
""We're very happy that she pleaded guilty," Mayor James Burke said. "There's no feeling sorry for her at all."
Burke said Crundwell deserves a long prison sentence and he hopes her plea will help the town recoup more of its $53 million in losses. He said he would convene a public meeting to discuss how recovered money will be spent.
The wire fraud count carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Crundwell, 58, had worked for the city about 100 miles west of Chicago since she was 17 and started to oversee public finances in the 1980s. Prosecutors say she began stealing money in 1990 to support an extravagant way of life.
Authorities say Crundwell bought luxury homes and vehicles and spent millions on her horse-breeding operation, RC Quarter Horses LLC, which produced 52 world champions in exhibitions run by the American Quarter Horse Association.
Her scheme unraveled when a co-worker filling in during Crundwell's vacation stumbled upon her secret bank account, prosecutors said.
Crundwell has pleaded not guilty to 60 separate but related felony theft counts in Lee County.