Stealing in Plain Sight (Documentary Review: “All the Queen’s Horses”)


The shocking true life crime story that made global headlines: a 20-year embezzlement scheme that rocked small town America and sullied the birthplace of Ronald Reagan.


SnapShot Plot

For many years the tiny Dixon IL was famous for one reason; it’s the hometown of  Ronald Reagan, one of America’s most beloved (and mythologized) Presidents in recent memory, whose statue proudly presides over Main Street. That was then. Today the town of Dixon will be forever associated with another local – distinctly unsavory – figure, town comptroller Rita Crundwell who embezzled close to $54 Million over a period of 20 years, from 1983 thru 2012. Her criminal undertaking is widely considered the largest municipal fraud in American history and is the subject of the excellent and informative documentary, All the Queen’s Horses

So who is Rita Crundwell and how exactly did she get away with stealing so much public money from a modest town whose middle-class population didn’t exceed 16,000? Very easily, apparently, and if not for a co-worker innocently noticing an irregularity in the books and bringing it to the attention of the mayor, who then summoned the FBI, Rita might be getting away with it still. For years she led a double life, by day a somewhat mousy clerk toiling away in the town hall and on weekends/vacations an elegantly dressed one-woman equestrian empire. For years, Dixon native Rita Crundwell was building her championship American Quarter Horse breeding operation, renowned throughout the country; by the time of her arrest, her ranch housed well over 300 race horses, and the physical evidence was everywhere of a lavish lifestyle that she successfully hid from her colleagues and neighbors for decades. In fact, the American Quarter Horse Association named her the leading owner for 8 years in a row, with her horses having won 52 world championships. To call her a star would be an understatement. To her friends, neighbors, colleagues and constituents whose trust has been eroded, there are no doubt several less attractive names Rita Crundwell has been called.



Parting Shot

What gallops across the screen in All the Queen’s Horses is the sad fact that small municipalities across the globe are often victim to a variety of embezzlement schemes, some more elaborate than others. This award-winning documentary does an impressive job of showing not only how Rita Crundwell managed to pull it off but how other ‘Rita Crundwells’ have similarly cheated their town employers, though not with the excess of arrogance that she exercised. Through simple narrated sketch diagrams, the film outlines the various methods used to embezzle funds, including disguising/laundering money through phony accounts and exploiting a lack (in many cases) of appropriate checks and balances on single individuals’ authority to handle all aspects of a town’s financial life.

It’s no surprise that All the Queen’s Horses achieves a blend of education & entertainment, as its director, Kelly Richmond Pope is a licensed CPA and an associate professor in the School of Accountancy and MIS at DePaul University. Pope’s work has centered on the study of fraud, and she made an earlier educational documentary entitled, Crossing the Line: Ordinary People Committing Extraordinary Crimes, which received several education awards and is currently included in higher education curriculums throughout the nation.

Beneath the criminal procedural that holds its own kind of allure, including the prosecution’s case against Rita Crundwell, is the deeper moral tragedy at the center of the story. What Rita did was to betray the trust and goodwill of an entire town who thought of her as ‘family’. Because of her insatiable greed and unbridled ego, the town of Dixon was plummeted deeper into debt and unable to maintain its infrastructures, nor was it able to complete capital improvements that were sorely needed. The town suffered because of its collective demonstration of a basic human value – that of trusting thy neighbor – which was turned on its head, to their shock and disappointment. This documentary serves as a warning to small and large municipalities everywhere, whose systems of checks and balances may need some overhauling. As director Kelly Richmond Pope stated, “If you pay taxes, you should want to see this film.”

All the Queen’s Horses is presently streaming on Netflix.

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