(MCT) – Trophies, medals, ribbons and plaques line the walls, floors and even ceiling beams of a cozy log cabin attached to a barn on Rita Crundwell's Dixon ranch, a testament to her years of dominance in showing quarter horses around the country.
But Crundwell's roughly 400 quarter horses will hit the auction block next month as the former Dixon treasurer awaits trial on charges she stole $53 million from the small northwest Illinois town over nearly 22 years. Federal authorities allege that the massive thefts fueled Crundwell's lavish lifestyle and award-winning horse-breeding operation.
"This room speaks to the serious value of the herd," U.S. Marshal Darryl McPherson of the Northern District of Illinois said near the entrance to Crundwell's trophy room, which bears her initials on the tile floor. "These horses represent some of the best raised and bred in the quarter horse industry."
The U.S. Marshals Service, which has been overseeing the care of the horses since Crundwell's arrest in April, gave reporters a tour Friday of her sprawling Dixon ranch in advance of the auction there Sept. 23 and 24. Most of the horses live there, but others are kept at 22 farms in 13 states.
Mike Jennings, co-founder of the Virginia company that will run the auction, said he has already been contacted by interested buyers from around the world and does not believe the large quantity of horses hitting the market at once will lower prices. He expects horses to sell for anywhere from $200 to as much as $200,000. Crundwell owns 29 champion horses.
"There's not very many world champions usually available for sale at any given time, and there's enough people in our industry to really want that type of horse," said Jennings, managing partner of Professional Auction Services.
Though Crundwell has pleaded not guilty to wire fraud, a judge has authorized federal authorities to sell off some of her assets, including the horses, ranch, other property and a luxury motor home.
If Crundwell is convicted, proceeds from next month's horse auction as well as the sales of other assets would go to Dixon, best known as the boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan — but not before the government recovers its costs. The upkeep of the horses is costing the Marshals Service about $200,000 a month, according to Jason Wojdylo, chief inspector of its asset forfeiture division.
"This has been unprecedented for us," Wojdylo said. "Never before have we managed this size of livestock in so many outlying areas, so it's been a challenge often working around the clock to manage the responsibility."
Marshals already have gotten court permission to sell Crundwell's ranch and will make plans to do so after the horse auction. In the meantime, they also are trying to find a buyer for Crundwell's motor home, which was valued at $2.1 million when she bought it in July 2008. A recent auction failed to secure a buyer willing to pay the $1 million minimum, so authorities are trying to figure out what to do next.
Rockford veterinarian Tim Strathman, who has cared for horses at the Dixon ranch for more than 15 years, said he didn't know how Crundwell could afford the ranch but was shocked when she was arrested on charges of stealing tens of millions of dollars from Dixon's coffers and taken from City Hall in handcuffs.
"It's been a topic in the horse industry for years," he said of Crundwell's large operation. "Nobody had any idea."