ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) — A former city bookkeeper was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison Thursday for embezzling more than $53 million from her Illinois community, in what ranks as one of the worst abuses of public trust in the state's corruption-rich history.
"You stole an astronomical amount of money from the city, you crippled the city," U.S. District Judge Philip Reinhard told Rita Crundwell, as he sentenced her to 19 years and 7 months in federal prison — just shy of the maximum 20 years. She was handcuffed and led away sobbing after he ordered her into custody immediately, saying he was concerned she could have money hidden and flee.
Crundwell, 60, pleaded guilty to wire fraud for embezzling money from the city of Dixon from 1991 until her arrest last April. She tearfully apologized in the Rockford federal courtroom.
"I am truly sorry to the city of Dixon, to my family and my friends," Crundwell said in court, her voice quivering.
For more than two decades as comptroller for Dixon, a northern Illinois community best known for being the site of Ronald Reagan's boyhood home, Crundwell siphoned city funds to pay for properties, vacations, luxury cars and a horse-breeding operation that became nationally renowned.
"You showed a much greater passion for the welfare of your horses than you did for the people of Dixon who you represented," the judge said before imposing a sentence that means Crundwell will not be eligible for release until she is 77 years old.
Crundwell's apology marked the first time she spoke publicly about her massive theft. Before she got her turn in court, she had to listen to people testify about the damage she had done.
Heads of various departments took turns describing how Crundwell's scheme devastated the city, forcing them to put off needed repairs and equipment purchases. Police didn't get radio equipment and there wasn't enough money to mow the grass at the cemetery.
Michael Stichter, long-time superintendent of Dixon's streets department, said miles of roadway could not be resurfaced and aging vehicles could not be replaced. He said Crundwell told him repeatedly that the city simply did not have the money.
Officials in Dixon remain baffled by Crundwell's scheme, which averaged more than $5 million a year during the last few years.
"She drove on the streets that didn't get repaired or replaced because of her theft," Mayor Jim Burke told the judge. "She saw city employees every day that had gone over two years without raises because of her theft."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Pederson said Crundwell "callously sat quietly at budget meetings year after year while the city had to make painful cuts."
Pedersen described Crundwell's "extravagant lifestyle" and showed the judge pictures of expensive vehicles, boats and jewelry. He said she criss-crossed the nation attending horse shows and acting every bit the wealthy horse owner, while Dixon had to borrow $3 million to pay city bills.
"She even paid for a mariachi band at a horse show," Pedersen said.
Pedersen said after the hearing that Crundwell would have continued stealing if she hadn't been caught. Continued...