MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. (CN) — Prosecutors announced criminal charges Thursday against a homeless man and a New Jersey couple whose feel-good fundraising story fetched more than $400,000 after going viral.
Burlington County District Attorney Scott Coffina told reporters this afternoon that the story of homeless veteran Johnny Bobbitt Jr., said to have given his last $20 to Kate McClure when she was stranded on the side of the road in need of gas, was a hoax.
“The paying-it-forward story that drove this fundraiser might seem too good to be true,” Coffina said. “Unfortunately, it was. The entire campaign was predicated on a lie.”
Bobbitt, 35; McClure, 28; and her boyfriend, 39-year-old Mark D’Amico, are each charged with second-degree theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft by deception. The charges could hold a sentence of 5 to 10 years in jail.
Things first went sour when Bobbitt sued the couple, claiming they had been withholding the $400,000 that the couple collected with post on the webpage GoFundMe about his roadside heroics.
The full amount after fees was closer to $367,000. At a hearing this summer, an attorney for the homeless veteran said Bobbitt had only seen about $75,000 of the money raised, and that McClure and D’Amico also reneged on their promises of a home, a truck and two trusts in his name.
Though Judge Paula Dow ordered the couple at that hearing to turn over the balance, Bobbitt’s lawyer remarked at the time that the money was all gone.
Coffina said Thursday that McClure and D’Amico spent the balance on trips, a new car, expensive handbags and gambling. It was on an off-ramp near the casino the couple frequented that they first met Bobbitt, about a month before the fundraiser went live, Coffina added.
He said the trio used the same off-ramp to then stage the heartwarming photo that would become the face of the fundraiser.
Coffina stressed that he has sympathy for Bobbitt’s homeless struggles, and that Bobbitt deserves to be thanked for his service, but that he was still fully complicit in this hoax.
In one of the more than 67,000 text messages that were reviewed during the investigation, McClure can be found admitting to a friend that the gas-station story is made up but that Bobbitt is a real person.
Other texts reveal that the couple was struggling to pay bills. D’Amico appeared unfazed in one March 2018 exchange with McClure, after she pointed out that they had less than $10,000 remaining.
Coffina said D’Amico promised that they would “dwarf” the GoFundMe money with the proceeds from a book. Still confident a few months later, despite Bobbitt’s lawsuit, D’Amico pivoted to encompass the controversy with a new title: “No Good Deed.”
Coffina also pointed to a Facebook post made by Bobbitt in 2012 where he said he gave the last of his money to a woman stranded at a Walmart in North Carolina with a flat tire.
“I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” said Coffina.
Coffina said the couple surrendered Wednesday night and were released pending a court date, and that Bobbitt was taken into custody in Philadelphia.
If there had not been disputes over the money, Coffina believes they may have gotten away with the deception.
GoFundMe says it will issue full refunds to the 14,000 people who donated.
Coffina meanwhile said the fact that this trio “hoodwinked” the public should not discourage people from to giving to those in need.