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Horse-loving bookkeeper gets almost 20 years for stealing $53 million from Illinois town

Robert Ray / AP file

Rita Crundwell, former comptroller for Dixon, Ill., leaving federal court in May 2013. Crundwell was sentenced Thursday to nearly 20 years in prison.

A former bookkeeper for a cash-strapped Illinois city, who admitted embezzling $53 million to finance a lavish lifestyle centered on prize-winning horses, was sentenced Thursday to almost 20 years in prison.

Rita Crundwell, 60, wept as she apologized to the city of Dixon, which couldn't even get its rusted dump trucks replaced or cut grass at the cemetery while its funds were being diverted to a secret account she controlled for two decades, NBCChicago.com reported.

Crundwell pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud in connection with the scheme. Her lawyer asked for a more lenient sentence of 13 to 16 years, but the judge wasn't in a forgiving mood.

“You showed a much greater passion for the welfare of your horses than you did for the people of Dixon who you represented,” U.S. District Judge Philip Reinhard said as he shaved just five months off the maximum sentence of 20 years.

The breath-taking theft underwrote Crundwell's extravagances: two horse farms that produced 52 world champions, a $2 million motor home, a Ford Thunderbird convertible and $340,000 worth of jewelry.

She sobbed as she left the courtroom -- after a parade of municipal officials testified about she stonily rebuffed their requests for funds with the claim that Dixon, the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, just didn’t have the money.

The small city, in farm country about two hours from Chicago, had to borrow $3 million to pay its bills.

“She saw city employees every day that gone over two years without raises because of her theft,” Mayor Jim Burke said.

Agency head Michael Stichter recounted how Crundwell rejected his requests for equipment and told him, "If you knew where a money tree was, I'd be willing to get you a dump truck."

Prosecutors say Crundwell raided Dixon's coffers by creating phony invoices for bogus supplies and services. She used city funds to pay the "bills," and the money went into an account that she had set up under an official-sounding name.

When she took a long vacation in 2011, her replacement uncovered the irregularities and the FBI was brought in. In recent months, the feds have been auctioning off her assets to reimburse the city.

But the city won’t recover most of what was lost, and Crundwell’s greed is still costing the government money: the U.S. Marshals service has already spent $1.7 million to care for her beloved horses.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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