For now, Rita keeps on riding

Marshal: Crundwell wanted to attend auction at ranch

Published: Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012 12:50 p.m. CDT

DIXON — If you stood by the side of the road on most days, you could see Rita Crundwell riding and training her horses at the Meri-J Ranch in Beloit, Wis.

You could still see that sight even after the former comptroller's arrest in connection with what authorities are calling the biggest municipal fraud in U.S. history.

"It's hard to read people sometimes," said Jason Wojdylo, chief inspector of the U.S. Marshals Service's asset forfeiture division. "I do believe that she recognizes the seriousness of what's going on."

Wojdylo met Crundwell a few times at her Dixon ranch as she helped marshals with identifying each of the horses and putting together their paperwork in preparation for an online and live auction of about 400 of her horses.

Most of her time, however, has been spent in Beloit. Her longtime boyfriend, Jim McKillips, manages the Meri-J Ranch, where many of her prized horses were boarded.

Related: Clearing out Rita's Ranch

The horses and many assets, including the Dixon ranch, were seized from Crundwell after her April 17 arrest and are under the marshals' control. But Crundwell still owns them, Wojdylo said.

“Anytime she's been here, either [marshals] have been here or the FBI, so it's always been by escort,” he said.

Wojdylo said he did not have a problem with Crundwell exercising and training her Beloit horses.

"Keep in mind that her doing that, I don't know how much you could put on it, but it somewhat reduced our costs, because we're not hiring people to do that," he said.

She did not train the Dixon horses, but occasionally asked to come to the ranch to check on their welfare, Wojdylo said.

Marshals say the proceeds, minus costs and liens, from the sale of the horses will be returned to the city if Crundwell is convicted of federal wire fraud.

Crundwell wasn't the only one to keep working with the horses.

One of her nephews was one of the few original employees who stuck it out at the Dixon ranch after her arrest.

If he had left, marshals would have been at a "significant disadvantage in trying to manage the herd," Wojdylo said.

"He had such intimate knowledge that I knew I had to figure out a way to be able to get him on the payroll," he said. "You know it's very, very unfortunate for him that he finds himself in the situation where, by association of the defendant, he has sort of suffered some unnecessary ridicule."

The sale of Crundwell's horses brought much interest from around the globe.

Crundwell and McKillips were among those who wanted to attend the auction.

"We advised against that, and at the end basically applied a little pressure by saying no, because we thought it would be far too disruptive," Wojdyo said.

Like the rest of the world, the pair was able to watch the auction through a live simulcast online.

Crundwell estimated that her prized herd was worth between $10 million and $12 million. But at the end of the day, the horses brought in about $5.4 million.

“Keep in mind that I think anybody who owns a product is going to overvalue them,” he said. “And what she has provided us was what she believes she could achieve through a private sale.”

He added, “We said from day one there would be no private sales. We wanted everyone in the world to have an opportunity to participate.”

Crundwell expressed concerns at some of the marshals' decisions. She was especially concerned about selling the horses online, Wojdylo said.

“I haven't spoken with her since the sale,” he said. “I don't know what her feelings are regarding it. But, that's not important. My job is not to be concerned with that.”

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