Rita Crundwell

Former Dixon comptroller Rita Crundwell walks out of Judge Ronald Jacobson's courtroom at the Lee County Courthouse after her arraignment on felony theft charges Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Dixon. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune) 

Contributed photo

ENGLEWOOD, Fla. — Lots of Florida addresses are quite exotic, like Palm Tree Plaza or Lagoon Lane. This one was just plain 821 E. 5th St., Englewood.

For the most part, it was just a long, paved street — as plain as its name — with no hanging palm limbs or wisteria along the fence rows.

The intrigue in the address is that it was the Florida home of Rita Crundwell.

Most Quad-Citizens find that name to be familiar. She’s the person who embezzled $53 million from the town of Dixon, Ill., (pop. 16,000) where she worked as city comptroller and was something of a toast of the town, not to mention the wider horse-breeding world.

Why she ever chose Englewood (pop. 14,800) for a Florida home is as mysterious as how that $53 million was embezzled.

Englewood is very familiar to Helen and me. We have a modest condo in Englewood, and when I saw in newsprint that Rita Crundwell had a home here, I couldn’t wait to get a look.

Now, we’re wintering in Englewood, and I hurried to drive by Crundwell’s home at 821 E. 5th St.

I expected exotica. I did not find it.

It is not the best street in Englewood and it is not the worst. Crundwell’s place, I will say, is the best house on what seems to be eight uninterrupted blocks.

Most houses in the area are very ordinary. A few side and back yards have RVs parked in them. And then there is the Crundwell place. I could call it Florida gothic, with a tan plaster finish. There are four arches across the front, giving it a porte cochere look. But nothing flashy.

Hesitantly, I parked out front and walked across the lawn. From afar I could see a sign in a doorway that said “no trespassing.” Even squinting, I could not read the small print under the warning, but it was reason enough for me to exit. I reasoned that this was a federal notice. Uncle Sam is in charge now.

What impressed me was the front lawn. There were small palms and pink flowers. The lawn was trimmed as short as a cricket’s eye. My wife said, “That lawn and plantings ... they’re like a park.”

The driveway, which led under the porte cochere, intrigued me. It looked brand-new, with but a few tire tracks.

There apparently have been no curiosity-seekers or potential buyers.

My next step was to go to the neighbors. Did they know Rita Crundwell? Was she a regular on this modest block.

The house next door, a tidy place, had a sign on a tree “no trespassing.” It was hand-lettered, and a man standing nearby gave me a dirty look and pointed to the sign. Obviously, the neighbors did not welcome any snoopers.

I drove by for a second look. Not a neighbor was in sight. I went home.

In investigating, I always find a newspaper to be a good source. I called the Englewood Sun, a smart-looking daily of 10,000 circulation, and inquired about Rita Crundwell and her Florida house. The associate editor had heard of the embezzlement, but the Sun had never done anything about it.

“This is a great coincidence,” the associate editor said with surprise. “But just today I assigned a reporter, Clinton Burton, to the story.

Clinton and I have talked about his findings. He sounded like a good reporter.

He had been digging most of the day we talked. He talked to every real estate agent in town and none had the place listed for sale. He learned that Crundwell had purchased the house in 2009 for $115,000. He learned also that the current appraisal was $242,897.

From all that the Englewood reporter could learn from nosing around town, Crundwell had no horses — a first love — in the vicinity. I asked him if he had any idea why she bought a place in Englewood.

He answered, “I think she just wanted to tell people that she had a place in Florida.”