DIXON, Illinois — On Sunday, hundreds of Dixon-area viewers applauded a documentary about a fraud committed by a former Dixon city employee who is serving time in prison for the crime.

Rita A. Crundwell was the comptroller for two decades in the town of 15,000 people about 70 miles northeast of the Quad-Cities. During that time, she stole nearly $54 million from taxpayers to build her quarter-horse empire and support her lavish lifestyle.

Under the title of the film, “All the Queen’s Horses,” was this question: “How could one woman steal $53 million without anyone noticing?”

Many of the people in the audience of about 900 at the Historic Dixon Theatre (it seats 953) knew Crundwell personally.

Kelly Richmond Pope, the director, took the stage to briefly introduce the movie, which opens with sights familiar to Dixon residents, from the town’s arch to images of President Ronald Reagan, City Hall and the water tower.

Several people, including Pope herself, appear on-camera to discuss how the crime was committed and how it was uncovered. Those interviewed include Kathe Swanson, who, while she was filling in for Crundwell, requested bank statements to produce a report.

Swanson saw an account that was unfamiliar. In an interview, she says she did not know what to do at first. “I sat on it for a couple of days,” she said.

Eventually, she told then-Mayor James Burke about her discovery, and he contacted the FBI. Also interviewed is FBI Agent Todd Carroll, who discusses the investigation, the crime and its aftermath.

The investigation continued for six months, until the day Burke called Crundwell on the intercom to tell her “These gentlemen would like to ask you a few questions.”

She gave an interview that lasted an hour and a half. “She was in there singing like a canary,” Burke says in the film in a moment that drew laughter from the audience.

Crundwell was convicted in 2013 of fraud because, over two decades, she diverted more than $53 million in city funds into her own bank account. She kept careful records in a crawlspace in her home, taking the first funds in 1991. Using easily understandable graphics, Pope explains how Crundwell used phony invoices and a secret account to take the money.

The documentary includes video and photos of Crundwell, who declined to be interviewed for the movie.

In an interview, Pope said she wanted to emphasize how crimes like this happen. “To me, Rita represents a couple of people in all organizations: The very trustworthy employee, hard-working and knows her job. She also represents that person we ultimately trust," she said.

If this can happen in Dixon, Illinois, it can happen in any organization, she said.

The movie took about five years and three months to make. “It was important to let the case happen,” she said. “You see this to the end. Rita’s imprisoned, her appeal process is over.”

“What I hope is that people can see that they can embrace this situation and use it to help other towns across the world,” Pope said.

“Kathe Swanson (then Dixon’s city clerk) becomes our focal point. Without Kathe, this would not have come to light. In my opinion, the documentary is really more about Kathe,” Pope said. “After fraud happens, the next question becomes how was it discovered.”

“Once I got Kathe’s interview secured, I knew I had a great documentary,” she said.

Swanson, who has since retired as city clerk, was in the spotlight — quite literally — immediately after the movie, when Pope presented her with an ethical courage award from the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy Inc. Many members of the audience gave Swanson a standing ovation.

Swanson said her interview in the film “was something that had to be done,” adding that Pope was kind to her “and guided me through the whole process.”

She’s enjoying her retirement, spending time with her grandchildren and traveling.

She takes some of what Crundwell did personally. Crundwell told some people that her father had worked for Campbell Soup Co. and left her stock – a life experience that belongs to Swanson, she said.

“She used that in her lies,” Swanson said.

After the presentation, Pope again took the stage to take questions from the audience. One man thanked her for the closure and drew applause again.

Lots of people stuck around to discuss the movie with each other. “It was eye-opening,” said Rita Sholders, of Dixon. “It was very well-done.” The film shows that “the system works,” Sholders said, praising Swanson. “She saved our town.”

Her husband, Earl Sholders said he thought the movie was “great – very informative.”

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Film critic/reporter since 1985 at Quad-City Times. Broadcast Film Critics Association member. College instructor for criminal justice, English and math. Serves on Safer Foundation and The Salvation Army advisory boards. Member of St. Mark Lutheran Church