ROCKFORD, Ill. A longtime bookkeeper pleaded guilty Wednesday to allegations she embezzled more than $50 million from a small city in Illinois to fund a lavish lifestyle that included a nationally known horse-breeding operation.
Rita Crundwell, the former comptroller of Dixon, pleaded guilty to a charge of wire fraud in federal court in Rockford. She was allowed to remain free until her Feb. 14 sentencing hearing. Prosecutors have said she stole public money while overseeing the city's finances and siphoned it into a secret bank account.
Under her plea agreement, federal prosecutors expect she will face a sentence between about 16 years and about 20 years while the defense is seeking a sentence between about 13 years and about 16 years, CBS Chicago station WBBM-TV reports.
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.
Crundwell had worked for the city about 100 miles west of Chicago since she was 17 and started to oversee public finances in the 1980s. Prosecutors say she began stealing money in 1990 to support an extravagant way of life.
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.