DIXON – The story of the $53.7 million embezzlement that turned the city on its head 5 years ago has made it to the silver screen, and the director hopes it will be a lesson to other communities.
“All the Queen’s Horses,” a documentary detailing former city Comptroller Rita Crundwell’s corruption across 20 years in what’s been called the largest municipal fraud in U.S. history, came to Crundwell’s former estate for a private screening Sunday.
More than 50 people watched the 71 minutes of interviews and archived footage the documentary team has gathered since 2013 when Crundwell was sentenced to serve 19 years and 7 months in a Minnesota prison, just 5 months shy of the maximum penalty. There is no parole in the federal system.
Director Kelly Richmond Pope, an accounting professor at DePaul University, interviews white-collar felons, fraud victims and whistleblowers and uses those stories as teaching modules in her classes.
The documentary was developed through the Diverse Voices and Docs fellowship program with Chicago-based Kartemquin Films, and it debuted at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival on Aug. 8, where it won the HBO Documentary Films Spotlight Award.
The film has been making its way to different festivals and formal screenings, but Pope said she was nervous what the response would be in the town where it all began.
“Seeing how quiet everyone was, I realized how serious and personal it was,” she said after the outdoor showing. “It’s different, because the attendees here lived it.”
One of those attendees was Kathe Swanson, who retired as City Clerk a year ago after 25 years with the city and is also the whistleblower who discovered Crundwell’s secret account that she used to funnel millions into her coffers and quarterhorse breeding empire.
“I thought it was very informational and true to the facts,” Swanson said.
Swanson and former Mayor Jim Burke, who died in February 2016, had to wait tight-lipped for 6 months, unable to report the fraud while the FBI built a case against Crundwell, which included 60 counts of felony theft. She was arrested April 17, 2012.
Crundwell began embezzling from the city in 1991, taking about $181,000, and by 2008, she stole north of $5 million a year. She would transfer city money into the Reserve Sewer Capital Development Account she created, which paid for her lavish lifestyle that included more than 300 horses at 22 farms across 13 states.
At the same time, the city was accumulating about $20 million in debt.
She created 179 false invoices for phony capital projects for 2 decades spanning five city councils and three mayors.
The documentary featured interviews with forensic accountants, equestrians, attorneys, government officials and local residents.
Residents mentioned a few stories they heard explaining Crundwell’s wealth, that she had a boyfriend who left her a hefty inheritance and that her parents invested in Campbell’s Soup Co.
Swanson was angry to hear the latter lie, considering her father worked for Campbell’s for 30 years, and said Crundwell must have been inspired by that to create her own fabrication.
“She didn’t just steal money; she stole pieces of us,” Swanson said. “She’s where she belongs.”
The showing was hosted by Tammi and Wes Sherman, who bought Crundwell’s house at 1679 U.S. Route 52.
Many at the screening asked whether there would be a public viewing in Dixon, possibly at the Historic Dixon Theatre.
The documentary will be playing at film festivals into early next year, and those interested can request a screening at allthequeenshorsesfilm.com.
Pope said Crundwell’s story helps bring to light a $3.7 trillion problem.
“The lesson is that this can happen anywhere,” she said. “No one is immune to fraud; anyone can steal.”