How NOT to fund your riding lifestyle

Rita Crundwell
Rita Crundwell was sentenced to 19 1/2 years in prison for embezzling $53 million dollars. Much of that money went to fund her extravagant equestrian lifestyle

On February 14th, Rita Crundwell — named the leading owner by the American Quarter Horse Association for eight consecutive years prior to her arrest — was sentenced to 19 1/2 years in prison for embezzling $53 million from the City of Dixon, IL. The “Quarter Horse queen”, who, like a celebrity was known on the circuit just by her first name, owned more than 400 horses at the time of her arrest.

Unfortunately, her equine empire was built on fraud. As the city comptroller, Crundwell had used her position to siphon off cash by creating false invoices and then depositing the money into an account that was ironically called the Reserve Sewer Development Account. Although the bank assumed the money was for the city, it was all for her.

For the past 20 years Crundwell lived the equestrian high life. Earning $80,000 per year in her job, Crundwell’s lavish lifestyle had people scratching their heads. People in Dixon thought she made money from  her horse business, which had produced 52 world champions; horse people assumed she came from money. According to an article when Rita Crundwell came to the Quarterhorse Congress, it was in an unforgettable style:

Crundwell would sweep into town in a vehicle so grand that the term “mobile home” doesn’t do it justice: a 45-foot Liberty Coach with marble countertops, tile floors, leather-wrapped railings, a king-size bed, five satellite televisions, even a washer and dryer. Accompanying the coach were custom-painted 10-horse trailers, some with attached living quarters, all emblazoned with her initials. (The typical competitor brought a horse or two.) One trailer, a Featherlite, cost nearly $260,000. “Everyone knew that Rita Crundwell was coming with the best horses in the country,” says Hope.

A retinue of hired hands would appear to clean the stalls, brush and exercise the horses, and set up stall decorations. “There would often be a luxury car of some kind,” Hope adds. Plus a couple of gleaming new Ford F-650 pickups. All around her encampment, Crundwell would string yellow police tape.

The setup in the parking lot across from the exhibition hall was only the beginning. Inside the arena, where breeders and performers put up booths to advertise wares such as saddles, costumes, and tack, Crundwell erected a replica of a log cabin as an entrance to her personal exhibit. Custom stall curtains hung next to expensive decorations. “She would have shelving where she would place the trophies that she had won, and she won a tremendous number of trophies,” recalls Debby Brehm, a horse owner from Lincoln, Nebraska, who has competed against Crundwell many times. Out front, a bartender would serve cocktails from a fully stocked bar.

Crundwell’s theft was uncovered while she was on vacation in 2011. A co-worker filling in for her found an account with $267,000 in withdrawals for the month of September, none of which appeared to be for city business. The FBI then watched for six months as Crundwell took at least $3.2 million from the city.

Crundwell’s assets, which included ranches, jewelery, power boats, horses and RVs, was auctioned off for restitution. I believe that so far, only about $11 million has been returned; a fraction of what she stole.

The auction at which her horses were sold, was a huge event in the Quarter Horse world. Thousands of potential buyers came, some from overseas. Hotels were booked for miles and there was a special food and shuttle service for the visitors. The horse that sold for the most was multiple world champion Good I Will Be who sold for $775,000 to a Canadian breeder.

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