Rita Crundwell, the former comptroller of Dixon, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a charge of wire fraud in federal court in Rockford. She was accused of stealing public money while overseeing the northern Illinois town's public finances and siphoning it into a secret bank account.
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.
"It is a pity and tragedy - for us and herself," Mayor James Burke said. "But having said that, the people who care about the community are looking forward, not backward."
Crundwell deserves a long prison sentence, Burke said.
"There is no indication that she has remorse over this whole thing," he said.
He also hoped that the plea would help the town recoup more of its $53 million in losses. A guilty plea in the federal case enables the U.S. Marshals Service to start selling off millions of dollars of assets still in Crundwell's name, including about $450,000 worth of diamonds and other jewels, ranch land and a house in Florida, he said. The marshals already have auctioned dozens of Crundwell's horses.
Crundwell, 58, had previously pleaded not guilty to the wire fraud count, which carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
She is accused of using her modestly paid town hall job to steal tax dollars that supported an extravagant way of life and won her national fame as a horse breeder. Prosecutors say she began stealing the money in 1990. She had been working for the town since she was 17 and started to oversee public finances in the 1980s in the small city about 100 miles west of Chicago.
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.