rita crundwell house
"Rita's Ranch," Dixon, IL


Over the course of two decades, Rita Crundwell—a lifelong small-town bureaucrat who became a show-horse doyenne—embezzled $53 million from her hometown of Dixon, Illinois. In November, she pled guilty; today, she was sentenced to 235 months in prison for running the largest municipal embezzlement scheme in American history over the course of two decades. She's 59, so she could be in prison for the rest of her life.

One chart will put into context just how brazen it was:

In less than half a year, she stole more money than was spent on the rest of the city. How did she do it? Bryan Smith wrote a lengthy investgation for Chicago explaining the minimal oversight and small-town trust that allowed her to continue what was ultimately a fairly simple scheme that began years after she'd earned the trust of the town's small, semi-pro government.

By the late 1980s, says Jim Dixon, she controlled virtually everything having to do with the city’s money. She balanced the checkbook. She wrote the checks. She made the deposits. She requested funds. If people wanted money for a project, it was Crundwell to whom they appealed. Financial statements were sent to a City of Dixon post office box that she controlled; when she was away, a relative collected the mail.

A couple years later, Crundwell created the secret account that allowed her to siphon off money—and build a multimillion dollar "breeding and showing empire." Photographer Daniel Shea captured what such an empire looks like in a gallery accompanying the story; there's more here.


Photograph: Daniel Shea