The “heartwarming tale” of a New Jersey couple helping drug-addicted homeless veteran Johnny Bobbitt took a stone-cold twist Thursday when a prosecutor said it was “predicated on a lie” designed to dupe thousands of people into contributing to a GoFundMe campaign.
Bobbitt, and the couple, Kate McClure and Mark D’Amico, allegedly conspired to concoct a story to tug at the hearts and wallets of kind-hearted individuals, Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina said at a news conference Thursday. They initially sought to raise $ 10,000, but the wildly successful GoFundMe campaign brought in over $ 400,000 and triggered an “international media blitz” that furthered the fraudulent campaign, Coffina said.
Every shred of the trio’s story, including the part that Bobbitt used his last $ 20 to help McClure out of a roadside jam when she ran out of gas, was all bogus, Coffina said.
“The entire campaign was predicated on a lie,” Coffina said. “Less than an hour after the GoFundMe campaign went live McClure, in a text exchange with a friend, stated that the story about Bobbitt assisting her was fake.”
In one of the texts read by Coffina, McClure allegedly wrote to a friend, “Ok, so wait, the gas part is completely made up but the guy isn’t. I had to make something up to make people feel bad. So, shush about the made up stuff.”
GoFundMe, which has cooperated in the investigation, has agreed to refund money to the 14,000 people who donated to Bobbitt.
“While this type of behavior by an individual is extremely rare, it’s unacceptable and clearly it has consequences. Committing fraud, whether it takes place on or offline is against the law. We are fully cooperating and assisting law enforcement officials to recover every dollar withdrawn by Ms. McClure and Mr. D’Amico,” GoFundMe said in a statement.
Coffina said the suspected fraudsters might have gotten away with the scam had Bobbitt not filed a lawsuit against McClure and D’Amico in August, accusing them of withholding the funds from him.
The money is all gone, most of it allegedly squandered by McClure and D’Amico on luxury handbags, a New Year’s trip to Las Vegas and a BMW; the couple also used the donated funds to pay back $ 9,000 they owed to relatives and “hit the casinos hard,” Coffina said. Bank records showed they withdrew more than $ 85,000 at or near casinos in Atlantic City, Philadelphia and Las Vegas, he said.
McClure, 28, D’Amico, 39, and Bobbitt, 34, were all charged with second-degree theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft by deception. McClure and D’Amico voluntarily surrendered to authorities on Wednesday, and have since been released, Coffina said. If convicted, each of them faces five to 10 years in prison, prosecutors said.
They were ordered to appear in court on Christmas Eve.
Bobbitt was arrested Wednesday night by the Philadelphia Police Department on charges of being a fugitive from justice, according to Philadelphia police. He is expected to be extradited to Burlington County to face charges related to the GoFundMe case.
Reached Thursday, an attorney for McClure and D’Amico told ABC News, “We have no comment. Have a nice day.”
In numerous media appearances, McClure claimed she was driving to meet a friend in September 2017 when she ran out of gas around midnight on the I-95 exit ramp near Philadelphia and Bobbitt, who was sleeping under a nearby overpass, came to her rescue. She claimed Bobbitt spent his last $ 20 to buy her gas.
“I pulled over to the side of the road as far as I could and I was going to get out and walk to the nearest gas station because it was not that far away, and that’s when I met Johnny,” McClure said last November in a “Good Morning America” interview. “He walked up and he said, ‘Get back in the car. Lock the doors. I’ll be back.’ I was just like, ‘OK.'”
She said Bobbitt used his panhandling money to get her out of the jam.
“I almost couldn’t believe it,” McClure added. “I said, ‘Thank you…I swear, I’ll be back. I promise I’ll be back to give you [the] money back.'”
Hoping to repay Bobbitt for the apparent generous act, McClure said she and D’Amico set up a GoFundMe online. The fund was launched on Nov. 10, 2017, just hours after D’Amico took of photo of McClure posing with Bobbitt near the I-95 exit ramp, Coffina said.
“I just got her gas to help her get back on her way. I didn’t think anything about it. I wasn’t expecting anything in return,” Bobbitt told “Good Morning America.” “That’s how I got the money to start with — from other people. [I had to] return the favor. I can’t constantly take and not give back.”
Coffina said investigators believe McClure and D’Amico first met Bobbitt about a month before they launched the GoFundMe campaign near the Sugarhouse Casino in Philadelphia, close to the I-95 off-ramp where Bobbitt was living on the streets at the time.
Asked who came up with the idea of the scam, Coffina noted a 2012 post Bobbitt made on his Facebook page that was “remarkably similar” to the narrative on the GoFundMe page.
“He reported that he helped a woman who had both run out of gas and had a flat tire at a Walmart, spent his last supper money to get her on her way and fix her flat tire,” Coffina said. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”
Among the few things about the story that’s true is that Bobbitt did serve in the Marine Corps and was homeless, Coffina said.
Military records obtained by ABC News show that Bobbit served in the Marines as an ammunition technician from December 2002 to February 2004 and was awarded a National Defense Service Medal.
“He deserves our appreciation for his willingness to serve our country as a United States Marine and he has our sympathy and concern for the homelessness that he’s experienced, as well as his publicized struggle with addiction,” Coffina said. “But it is imperative to keep in mind that he was fully complicit in the scheme to defraud contributors, promoting the campaign in multiple media appearances and posing with Amico and McClure for a Philadelphia Inquirer story in front of a gas station that he did not buy gas from.”
In August, Bobbitt filed a lawsuit accusing McClure and D’Amico of committing fraud by taking more than half of the money they raised for themselves. His pro bono attorney alleged in court papers that the couple treated the donations like their “personal piggy bank to fund a lifestyle that they could not otherwise afford.”
D’Amico and McClure denied the allegations.
In September, the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office launched a criminal investigation into the missing GoFundMe donations and raided the couple’s home, seizing a BMW and other belongings.
Coffina said that even after burning through most of the money and getting sued by Bobbitt, D’Amico was allegedly thinking of ways to keep the scam going, including landing a book deal.
“He was certain the payday from the book deal they were pursuing would dwarf the money from the GoFundMe campaign,” Coffina said. “A few months later, when the dispute with Bobbitt became public D’Amico was not dissuaded. Instead, he pitched a title for the book that would encompass the controversy, ‘No Good Deed.'”
Bobbitt’s 81-year-old grandmother, Betty Grissom, of North Carolina, told ABC News Thursday that Bobbitt had always been a “fine young man.”
“He had been in the Marines and he worked with a paramedic group and we all heard … how great he was, and he just let the drugs take over,” said Grissom, adding that she hasn’t seen or heard from her grandson since he left her house in 2014.
“When he had his drug problem, I know he did things he should not have done, but I cannot believe he was involved in this type of hoax,” Grissom said. “Until Johnny comes and tells me personally he did it, I cannot believe it.”
ABC News’ Luis Martinez, Alex Hosenball and Gerry Wagschal contributed to this report.