Rita Crundwell and the Dixon Embezzlement

THE $53 MILLION BAMBOOZLE: How the trusted comptroller of a small Illinois town became the biggest municipal embezzler in U.S. history, according to the feds—and no one noticed

Rita Crundwell leaves a Rockford, Illinois, courthouse after a hearing on her embezzlement case in August 2012.   Photo: Ray Whitehouse

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UPDATE (11.14.12): Rita Crundwell pleaded guilty to fraud on November 14 in federal court in Rockford.

 

It was time. The three men, in standard-issue FBI suits and ties, arrived at Dixon City Hall just after nine on the morning of Tuesday, April 17. They chatted breezily with Jim Burke, the mild-mannered, silver-haired mayor, who smiled and nodded from behind a cluttered desk in his office on the second floor. But for the badges tucked into the men’s wallets and the guns holstered on their belts, the gathering might have looked like a few insurance salesmen debating weekend tee times.

As the small talk petered out, however, a chill settled over the room. Burke looked up at the men. “Are we ready?” he asked.

The lead agent, Patrick Garry, nodded. “Yes. Let’s bring her in.”

Burke reached for the phone and punched in the number for the comptroller. “Rita, would you mind stepping into my office for a minute?”

“Sure,” Rita Crundwell answered brightly.

For five long months—ever since Dixon’s city clerk, Kathe Swanson, had stumbled upon a curious bank statement from an even more curious bank account—Burke had been helping the feds unravel an embezzlement scheme so vast and so brazen it seemed almost inconceivable. Tens of millions of dollars had been siphoned from the tiny rural city’s operating budget. The money was being dumped into a mysterious account and allegedly spent on everything but city business: jewelry, fancy clothes, a custom motor coach, boats, property in Florida, luxury cars, hundreds of the finest horses this side of Amarillo. And that was only what the feds had found in their cursory first look at the city’s cooked books.

Most stunning of all was the identity of the person suspected of masterminding the scheme: Rita Crundwell, a woman whose parents were the kind of humble, hardworking community pillars upon which Dixon’s reputation was built, a woman who had been the town’s comptroller for more than three decades, as trusted and efficient as a church tithe collector.

It was Burke who had taken the dubious bank statement to the FBI office in Rockford back in October 2011. Agents instructed him to hold his tongue while they investigated. As the months passed, he woke often in the night. Was this really happening?

The mayor’s thoughts turned to Crundwell’s hobby. Everyone in town knew that Crundwell, 59, who is divorced and has no children, owned and showed horses. The local paper reported on various championships she won, honors that bestowed a measure of pride on the city.

But very few in Dixon had the faintest idea of the operation Crundwell was running or of the magnitude of the double life she was leading. By day, she was a modest municipal worker with a high-school education; by night, she was a diamond-bedazzled high roller, the doyenne of a world that was a million miles in glamour and several million dollars in wealth from the cornfields and cattle farms of Illinois.

Week after week, Burke would pass Crundwell in the upstairs offices—a warren of cubicles with pile carpeting and cheap wood paneling—and pretend that nothing was wrong, trading “good mornings” with the woman he’d been told was robbing the city blind and smiling as she did. Week after week, Swanson, the city clerk who had flagged the telltale bank statement, swallowed her disgust as she watched the coworker she had once considered a friend breezing around the building.

Now the day of reckoning was at hand.

“Hi,” Crundwell chirped, sticking her head through the door.

“Morning,” Burke said. “Would you mind coming in?”

Garry wasted no time. “I’m with the FBI,” he said, displaying his badge. “We’d like to ask you some questions.”

From his desk, Burke studied Crundwell. If she has an ounce of shame, he thought, it will show on her face. When he saw her expression, the unwavering calm smile, he was stunned. “I was looking right at her,” Burke recalls. “And the look on her face never changed. Absolutely never changed.”

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