From the moment I paid my first visit to Dixon this past July to interview the mayor and citizens of the tiny Illinois town over the jaw-dropping—frankly almost inconceivable—theft of $53 million from their municipal coffers, it seemed likely that the only suspect, Rita Crundwell, would plead guilty. After all, by the time I began looking into the case following her May indictment, the former comptroller of Ronald Reagan’s boyhood town had been cooperating with the feds in every way, including not putting up a fight as the world championship horse empire she built with the allegedly stolen money was dismantled and auctioned off last month to the tune of $7 million.

The time is at hand: Crundwell, 59, pleaded guilty this morning in federal court in Rockford.

Crundwell, whose story I told in the December issue of Chicago, faces a maximum of 20 years in what is considered the largest municipal embezzlement case in U.S. history.

In late September, state prosecutors added another 60 counts of felony theft, each of which carries a sentence of 6 to 30 years behind bars. If she is found guilty of all counts and the judge does not allow her to serve her sentences concurrently, she could spend the rest of her life in prison. For the past few months, Crundwell has been free on a $4,500 personal recognizance bond, living with her boyfriend, Jim McKillips, at a Wisconsin ranch where she stabled some of her horses.

While reporting the story, I fell for the town during the week I spent there–it’s hard not to. As I said in my story, “Dixon could be a back lot for a Capra film on all that is best about small-town America.” The townspeople, of course, have been simultaneous stunned, furious, and heartbroken. Many have traveled to Rockford for even the most mundane of hearings in the case. I suspect many more were in court on Wednesday—and probably in a better mood.