A New Jersey couple and a homeless veteran caught in an acrimonious battle over more than $400,000 in donations to a GoFundMe fundraiser have been charged with second degree felonies for allegedly fabricating the story that got them the money in the first place.
"The entire campaign was predicated on a lie," Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina said at a news conference on Thursday.
The couple, Katelyn McClure and Mark D'Amico, and Johnny Bobbitt Jr. have been charged with second degree theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft by deception, Coffina said.
The story of the trio's chance meeting — the selflessness of a destitute man and the altruism of the couple hoping to get him back on his feet — was "irresistibly heartwarming," Coffina observed, adding that it successfully "hoodwinked a lot of people" and bilked them out of generous donations made in good faith.
As McClure told it on the GoFundMe website, Bobbitt used his last $20 to buy her gasoline after she became stranded near an off-ramp in Philadelphia. McClure said she later returned with her boyfriend, D'Amico, in tow and he took a picture of the unlikely pair. That story combined with the photo became a wallet-opening viral juggernaut, garnering national headlines and news segments. Within days the couple had vastly exceeded their goal of $10,000, eventually raising nearly $403,000 from more than 14,000 people.
But Coffina said the Good Samaritan tale was "too good to be true."
"She did not run out of gas on the I-95 off-ramp and he did not spend his last $20 to help her. Rather, D'Amico, McClure and Bobbitt conspired to pass off a fake feel-good story that would compel donors to contribute to their cause. And it worked in a very big way. But it was fictitious and illegal and there are consequences," Coffina said.
After scouring more than 67,000 texts on the couple's phones, officials discovered a text exchange between McClure and a friend written less than an hour after the GoFundMe page went live that appears to confirm it was all a hoax.
"Ok, so wait. The gas part is completely made up but the guy isn't," McClure allegedly texted. "I had to make something up to make people feel bad. So shush about the made up stuff."
GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne confirmed all donors who contributed to the online fundraiser will receive a full refund.
"GoFundMe always fully protects donors, which is why we have a comprehensive refund policy in place," Whithorne told NPR in an emailed statement. The company will process all refunds in the coming days.
McClure and D'Amico squandered the vast majority of the ill-gotten fortune within four months of launching the campaign, according to Coffina. They splurged on a BMW, spent lavishly on vacations, purchased high-end handbags and "hit the casinos."
By mid-March, McClure and D'Amico had begun discussing their mounting debts over texts, Coffina said.
But while McClure worried they had less than $10,000 remaining, D'Amico assured her a windfall from a book deal they were pursuing would "dwarf the money generated by the GoFundMe campaign," according to Coffina.
The criminal investigation into the fundraising campaign was launched after Bobbitt filed a civil suit against the couple, whom he accused of mismanaging money raised on his behalf. Had the homeless Marine veteran not started a highly publicized litigious battle over the money, "there's a good chance they might have gotten away with it," Coffina said.
Bobbitt estimates he received approximately $75,000 from McClure and D'Amico. The couple maintained they had given him $200,000 over several months. They said they kept control over the money because Bobbitt is a drug addict. "That's like me handing him a loaded gun," D'Amico told the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time.
At the news conference, Coffina said McClure, D'Amico and Bobbitt had known each other for at least one month prior to the GoFundMe campaign. He suggested they very likely met at the I-95 off-ramp — the same one featured in the now infamous photo — near the SugarHouse casino, which the couple frequented often.
Coffina also noted that the story of the empty gas tank is not new to Bobbitt. In 2012, he posted a similar tale on his Facebook page, only in that version Bobbitt lived in North Carolina and said the woman was stranded by an empty gas tank and a flat tire. He said in that case he was moved to give her the last of his money.
"I don't think that's a coincidence," Coffina said.
McClure and D'Amico surrendered to officials on Wednesday night and were released pending a Dec. 24 court date. Bobbitt was taken into custody in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. He is awaiting an extradition hearing. If convicted they could face up to 10 years in prison.