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Piecing Crundwell together

An honor roll student, a horse enthusiast, a longtime official

Published: Saturday, April 28, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 4:52 p.m. CDT
Caption
Rita Crundwell in 1971.

DIXON – Rita Crundwell has had plenty of money the last 6 years – or, at least, that’s the case the FBI is making.

The former Dixon city comptroller lived well beyond her salary, according to authorities. She is accused of misappropriating $30 million in city funds.

When did she start coming upon big money?

Crundwell, now 59, started as comptroller in 1983. Through the rest of the 1980s, she appeared to have lived relatively modestly, according documents and newspaper clippings.

By the late 1990s, her participation in the quarter horse industry had picked up. Afterward, she launched big-dollar construction projects on her properties.

Over the past week, Sauk Valley Media has examined Crundwell’s life as told by acquaintances, public documents, and newspaper stories. But missing pieces to the puzzle remain.

Crundwell, who was fired this week, could not be reached for comment, and her longtime boyfriend, Jim McKillips, would not speak about her for this story.

Family members also have refused to discuss Crundwell, and few others acknowledge links to her.

An honor roll student

Rita Humphrey was a good student – something that newspaper clips from 1971 show.

That was the future Rita Crundwell’s last year at Dixon High School.

Shortly before her graduation, the National Honor Society inducted Crundwell. She walked the line with 338 other seniors in June 1971, the largest graduating class in Dixon’s history at that point.

Of that class, 140 made the honor roll. Only 19, including Humphrey, reached the top level of the honor roll.

She was also popular. A yearbook photo shows that she was an attendant in the homecoming court her senior year.

That year, the Telegraph ran photos of graduates, with captions that included their parents’ names and the students’ post-graduation plans.

Crundwell’s entry listed her mother, Caroline Humphrey. Crundwell planned to attend Sauk Valley Community College.

As a youth, Crundwell, a later champion in national quarter horse competitions, took part in 4-H contests. But her record then was no indicator of future success.

Newspaper clippings don’t indicate whether she even competed in the livestock competitions in the 1970 Lee County Fair.

A year later, she won reserve champion – or second place – in the halter horse category, which became her specialty nationally.

Comptroller’s position created

In 1970, Crundwell began her career at City Hall. She started with the city as part of a work-study program, said Walter Lohse, a Dixon city commissioner from 1967 to 1987.

A year later, Mayor George Lindquist left office after a dozen years at the helm. In his last month, he asked for the creation of the comptroller’s position.

The council granted that wish, which was the lead story in the Telegraph on April 12, 1971.

Lindquist envisioned the office as a liaison in all areas of finance. The comptroller, an appointee of the council, would be in charge of the receipt and disbursement of the city’s money, according to the ordinance that created the position.

Lindquist said the office was a compromise for not having a city manager or a full-time mayor – both of which, he argued, were impractical for Dixon. (For years, some people have questioned whether the city should have a manager, as Sterling and Rock Falls have.)

A day before the council meeting, Warren Walder won the mayor’s race in a landslide.

Two months later, Darlene Herzog was sworn in as comptroller.

Marriage and divorce

Rita Crundwell, who has no children, was married for nearly a dozen years.

On Oct. 12, 1974, she married Jerry L. Crundwell, an engineer with Homer Chastain and Associates, a Decatur-based engineering firm.

A Nov. 1, 1974, newspaper clipping said they married at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Dixon. Unlike most wedding announcements at the time, Crundwell’s had no photo.

She was listed as a secretary to Mayor Walder.

In April 1986, the 33-year-old Rita Crundwell filed for divorce. Two months later, a Lee County judge granted the request.

Her husband, then 46, was a no-show at a hearing on the matter. Rita Crundwell testified that her husband had left for Salem, Ill., on Jan. 1.

She said he had been guilty of “extreme and repeated mental cruelty” under the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution Act. She testified that they had had frequent quarrels.

Under the settlement, Crundwell kept their $80,000 house at 1673 U.S. Route 52 and her 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass. He got his 1983 truck.

She testified that her take-home pay was about $20,000 a year.

The agreement didn’t mention horses.

Little is known about Jerry Crundwell. Record searches turn up nothing, other than a February obituary that indicated his brother died in Florida.

An engineer with Homer Chastain since 1982 said this week that he never knew anyone by the name of Crundwell at his firm.

The state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which has a database containing the names of active and inactive engineers, doesn’t include Jerry Crundwell.

A big promotion at City Hall

In Dixon, 1983 was a big political year. Lindquist had taken back the mayor’s seat 4 years earlier, but tough economic times followed in Dixon and the region. (Rockford, for instance, had the highest unemployment rate of any metropolitan area in the country for a time in 1982.)

Dixon’s budget suffered, and Lindquist’s rival, Jim Dixon, promised change at City Hall. Dixon won big in the April 1983 election.

Shortly before that, Finance Commissioner Walter Lohse, a council member, announced that Herzog was resigning earlier than scheduled because of health issues.

Lohse told the council that Crundwell, then the city clerk, had told him she was interested in the position. He said he believed Crundwell could take over the comptroller’s office.

Herzog, who died in 2009, left May 1, 1983.

Shortly after, with Dixon as mayor, Crundwell was appointed comptroller.

“Darlene hired Rita Crundwell as a part-time work-study,” said Lohse, now 80. “She performed very well. She learned everything quickly. She moved up in responsibility and job titles.”

In the years that followed, she appeared in photos in the Telegraph with City Council members or at swearing-in ceremonies. But no stories could be found in which she spoke during council meetings.

In her spare time in the 1980s, she played first base for the softball team of the Clifton Gunderson accounting firm, which has had a role in recent years in preparing the annual audit for the city of Dixon.

Not a political animal

If her voting record is any indication, despite her role at City Hall, Crundwell didn’t seem to care about who was elected.

According to public documents, she voted 20 times from 1976 to 1998. In every primary, she chose the Republican ballot.

Since 1998, she hasn’t voted at all, even in city elections, according to the county clerk’s office. She remains a registered voter.

Sauk Valley Media has searched sites that track campaign donations, and Crundwell does not appear to have given money in state and federal races.

A growing portfolio

Lee County records show that Crundwell started expanding her empire in a big way during the past two decades.

According to South Dixon Township assessment records:

Crundwell’s property at 1679 U.S. Route 52 is valued at $468,192. She acquired the property in 1986 from the estate of her mother, Caroline, who died 2 years earlier.

She built horse stables there in 1997.

In 2000, the house on the property, which was 20 years old then, underwent a major expansion, more than doubling the living space to 3,484 square feet. The project included an in-ground pool.

Before the stables and home expansion, the property was valued at $104,000.

For her 88-acre property at 1556 Red Brick Road, she built a 19,584-square-foot horse barn in 2006. It included storage space, stalls, an arena and an office.

The property is now worth $379,173, according to the assessor’s records.

Crundwell bought the property from Richard A. Humphrey Sr., a family member, in 2002. She paid $540,000 – paying in halves in 2002 and 2011.

In 2007, Crundwell bought a 43-acre property at 1403 Dutch Road from Shirley Levan. She paid $311,000.

She had a two-story house built there in 2010, removing an older house to make way for construction.

The assessor has determined its value at $270,975.

Richard Humphrey bought an adjoining 37 acres at the same time as Crundwell got her 43 acres

The county clerk’s records showed that Crundwell obtained a $240,000 mortgage for the Dutch property.

Crundwell also owns 81 acres of farmland near Nachusa Road and Interstate 88. That land includes no buildings.

She paid more than $19,000 in property taxes to Lee County last year.

A spending spree

More documentation exists for Crundwell’s wealth in recent years. After Crundwell’s arrest last week, the FBI revealed that she had used city money to buy several vehicles, including a $2.1 million luxury motor home; to pay $2.5 million on her personal American Express card; and to buy more than $339,000 in jewelry.

She has hundreds of horses, industry insiders say. They are at Meri-J Ranch in Beloit, Wis., and Rita’s Ranch, which is her Red Brick property. She breeds and sells champion horses through her company, RC Quarter Horses LLC.

She has spent much time on the road, even while she kept her city job. In 2004, she made $57,000 a year, according to openthebooks.com. Now she makes $80,000 – a 40 percent increase in 8 years.

She told a horse enthusiasts’ publication, Equine Chronicle, in 2003 that her co-workers at City Hall had been accommodating.

“They are used to me being gone in August, October and November,” she said.

She said she carried a portable computer back and forth, giving her access to her city email. She also called City Hall every day, she said.

More and more accolades

In 1989, Crundwell had three horses, according to a story in the Telegraph. Then, she was competing more on a regional scale, not national.

Her living room was filled with trophies from her past efforts.

Crundwell started showing quarter horses in 1978. Six years later, her mother died.

Crundwell told the Telegraph that her mother’s death was the saddest time in her life. She said she was working on a smaller scale to re-establish what the family – known for its ability to show horses – had once achieved.

In 1985, Crundwell captured the Indiana State Quarter Horse Championship. She also was named winner of the 1985 National Texas Classic State Hunter Under Saddle Champion.

But that was nothing like her later success – in a sport where owners with more money are likelier to grab more awards.

By 2002, Crundwell was wowing audiences at the annual world quarter championship in Oklahoma City.

She told the Telegraph after the event that she enjoyed the “thrill of victory.”

“I just love to do it,” she said. “There is also the agony of defeat that goes with it. There’s a lot of that, too.”

Her days as a quarter horse competitor may have come to an end. Most who knew her describe themselves as surprised about the arrest.

Lohse, the former commissioner, said he was at the end of his vacation in Arizona when he got emails with the news about Crundwell.

“I was in shock and disbelief,” he said. “Eventually, I was angry. And then I was sad. I care a lot about Dixon, Ill.”

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