ROCKFORD, Ill. -- Hundreds of horses. Multiple houses. A $2.1 million luxury motor home. In hindsight, they all pointed to the unfathomable: Rita A. Crundwell, while comptroller of a small town two hours west of Chicago, had raided public coffers for decades to pay for a lavish life and a horse-breeding business.
Ms. Crundwell, 59, pleaded guilty in federal court here on Wednesday to one count of wire fraud, after bilking $53 million from her hometown, Dixon, Ill. By then, Dixon was known by outsiders not only as the proud boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan, but also as home to what one federal official called "one of most significant abuses of public trust ever seen in Illinois."
That is quite a distinction considering the state's reputation for corrupt officials, including governors. Still, officials said, the continuing tale in Dixon comes as a harsh reminder about the potential for large crimes in small city governments, where oversight can sometimes be an afterthought.
"For over 20 years, Rita Crundwell was living the dream," William C. Monroe, the F.B.I. agent in charge of the case, said at a news conference after the court hearing. "Unfortunately, this dream was being funded by the taxpayers of the city of Dixon."
The scheme dated to 1990, seven years after Ms. Crundwell began working for Dixon, population 15,733. In December of that year, prosecutors said, she opened a secret bank account in the city's name. Over the years, she transferred money from other municipal accounts and falsely told city officials that any budget gaps were because the state was behind in its tax revenue payments to the city.
In truth, she was spending the cash on personal and private business expenses like running horse farm operations in Dixon and Beloit, Wis., federal authorities charged.
Details released in the plea agreement on Wednesday showed that in one case from September 2009, Ms. Crundwell moved $350,000 of city money to the secret account. To conceal the move, she created a fake invoice from the State of Illinois for a sewer project in Dixon. But really, the money went toward buying a horse named Pizzazzy.
"This is a crime that should have never been allowed to occur," Gary S. Shapiro, the acting United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, told reporters on Wednesday.
Warning that other cities should create better policies for overseeing employees who handle public finances, Mr. Shapiro added, "Twenty-one years of this going on and not being caught just defies the imagination."
Ms. Crundwell was arrested April 17 after co-workers discovered the hidden account while she was on an extended, unpaid vacation last year. They reported it to law enforcement officials, who found that she had siphoned more than $30 million from Dixon taxpayers since 2006.
Soon after the federal indictment, the authorities began selling off assets that Ms. Crundwell had bought with money from the fraud, officials said.
That list was extensive: approximately 400 horses, more than a dozen trucks and trailers, sports cars (a 2005 Ford Thunderbird convertible and a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette Roadster), a pontoon boat, a 2009 Liberty Coach motor home and houses in Illinois and Florida.
So far, the United States Marshals Service, which manages the seizure of such assets, has recovered about $7.4 million from selling Ms. Crundwell's possessions in online and live auctions. That, along with money expected from the sale of other items like Ms. Crundwell's jewelry and real estate, will go toward restitution for Dixon, according to Darryl K. McPherson, the marshal overseeing the process.
Ms. Crundwell now faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and fines up to double the amount stolen. She remained free on bond until a sentencing hearing that was scheduled for Feb. 14.
She also faces 60 additional state charges related to the thefts. Henry Dixon, the Lee County state's attorney who brought the indictment against Ms. Crundwell before he lost re-election, was out of the office and could not be reached for comment.
As she left the federal courthouse on Wednesday, Ms. Crundwell did not speak to the swarm of reporters and news photographers who followed her to her car.
Her lawyer, Paul E. Gaziano, said, "Rita Crundwell, since the day of her arrest, has worked diligently with the government in order to accomplish the sale of her assets, including her beloved horses, all with the goal of hoping to recoup the losses for the city of Dixon." He added only that her guilty plea had saved the federal government the "expense and burden" of a long trial.
"I think the people of the city of Dixon ought to know that," he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.