DIXON, Ill. — Relief mingled Thursday with a lingering disgust over the betrayal by Rita Crundwell of taxpayers and neighbors she took for millions.
In the downtown offices of Dixon City Hall, the morning was interrupted by the wait for word on Crundwell’s sentencing in federal court in Rockford. When news spread shortly after 11 a.m. of the 235-month sentence, relief delivered more distraction.
Three city workers sat glued to computer monitors in a second-floor office, saying they were watching Twitter for the judge’s ruling on how long the 60-year-old would spend in federal prison.
When the sentence of 19 years and seven months was announced, a “Woohoo!” echoed down the City Hall staircase. From the first-floor lobby, a worker in the building department could be heard proclaiming, “Close City Hall! Forget the red-velvet cake. Let’s break out the wine!”
Despite the hints at a celebratory mood, many in Dixon said they were merely relieved, because they feared Crundwell would get a much lighter sentence, even though she admitted to embezzling more than $53 million in city funds.
A couple of hours after returning to Dixon from the hearing in Rockford, Lee County State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller said she hopes to get a feel in the next week or so for what the consensus is regarding the 60 felony charges that are pending against Crundwell in state court.
“At this time, I need to meet with city officials in Dixon,” she said. “I think we need to let it sink in.”
She said she will consult elected officials and department heads to determine whether they wish to proceed with the dozens of theft charges.
Meanwhile, downtown business owners and workers also were paying close attention to the Crundwell news, mostly getting their updates from a local radio station.
“I think she got what she deserved,” Jeanette Hart said from behind the cash register at Something Special resale shop on West 1st Street, just a block from City Hall. “Her attorneys kept pointing out that she cooperated, but what was her choice?
“They caught her, red-handed.”
Hart said she knows several of Crundwell’s family members, but she does not know the woman who was famous around town for her nationally recognized success in the quarter-horse breeding operation.
“I know plenty about her, though,” she said. “Do you know they couldn’t afford to keep the Memorial Pool open — the city swimming pool? After they closed it, though, Rita had a pool put in at her house.”
Down the street at The Frameworks, owner Diane Schnake said she does know Crundwell and said she framed a painting of her prize-winning stallion, Good I Will Be, just a couple of weeks before her April arrest.
The horse fetched the highest bid at auction, $775,000, of the 401 horses in Crundwell’s herd.
Schnake did other art-framing work for the former comptroller, she said, adding that Crundwell “sent her peons” to take care of the transactions.
The theft of millions in taxpayer money was bad enough, Schnake said. Almost as troubling for her, as the owner of four horses, was what she regarded as Crundwell’s disinterest in the day-to-day care of her prize-winning herd.
“When this first happened, I was appalled,” she said. “People said, ‘It sounds like you’ve already got her convicted.’ But if I had the FBI and the U.S. Marshals at my house, taking away my horses, I’d be kicking and screaming.
“Some of my friends here in town went out to the ranch to help take care of the horses after she was arrested. They said most of them never had a bridle on before, and they’d never been saddled.
“They kicked. They bit.
“I don’t think the stealing was about a love of horses. She bred them and bred them and, if they didn’t have the right markings, they were ignored. She was about the glitz and the glamour and, ‘Look at me!’
“How does someone’s moral compass drift that far off?”
Schnake said she feared Crundwell would get a much lesser sentence than the one handed down Thursday.
“I bet my husband she’d get five years, and he bet she’d get more,” she said. “He called me after he heard about it and said, ‘You going to be giving me that 20 bucks in ones?”
At the neighboring Waterfront Gifts, co-owner Chris Morgan said the nearly 20-year sentence is not enough.
“I’d have made her work for the people she robbed, doing community service,” she said. “She should be in a jumpsuit and flipflops, mowing lawns and doing chores for 53 of the most deserving families in town.
“She should do 53 months of community service — one for every million she stole. I guess I wouldn’t be a very good judge, because I’d be pretty harsh.”
Morgan said she has known Crundwell all her life and characterized her as being consumed with her appearance and her stolen money. She said Crundwell’s tearful apology on the witness stand Thursday was a “psychological ploy,” adding, “It’s like a murderer, claiming he snapped.
“I hope she enjoyed herself, because they don’t have expensive beauticians and fancy clothes in the pokey. I’d have taken great pleasure in seeing her cleaning the streets.
“As a taxpayer, I’d enjoy seeing her with a pooper scooper in someone else’s barn. She hired people for practically nothing to clean hers. That would be worth a picture on Facebook.”
At the Shamrock Pub, described as one of Crundwell’s hangouts because of its proximity to her home on U.S. 52, a busy lunch crowd buzzed with talk of “Rita.”
By 1 p.m., however, most conversations were centering on whether it would snow.
“I’m just glad it’s over — that it’s mostly done,” said bartender Elaine Bruns. “I think a lot of people feel that way. It’s time to give everybody a rest.”
At the Lee County Courthouse, a deputy working security noticed a familiar face nearby and announced, “She got 19-and-a-half years, Dick.”
The reply: “And a box of chocolates.”
On Valentine’s Day in Dixon, there was little love lost for Rita Crundwell.