The fabulous life of Saudia Shuler — Philadelphia’s Instagram-famous “Camel Prom Mom,” who became a viral sensation in 2017 after hosting a lavish Dubai-themed prom send-off for her son featuring foreign luxury cars, three tons of sand, and, yes, a rented dromedary — just went from “glammed up” to “jammed up.”
On Tuesday, the 44-year-old single mother pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges and admitted she collected Social Security disability payments for years while failing to report income that would have made her ineligible.
In all, prosecutors said, Shuler illegally took home nearly $37,000 in benefits between 2014 and 2018 while hosting the posh parties that rocketed her to notoriety.
“This is serious stuff,” U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez cautioned her during a hearing in federal court in Center City. “You could go to jail for 30 years. Do you understand that?”
Voice quavering, she gulped before she replied. “Yes,” she said.
That three-decade sentence Sanchez referenced is the maximum penalty Shuler could face. In all likelihood, her punishment will amount to far less at a sentencing hearing in May.
Federal guidelines call for less than a year in prison, her lawyer Tariq El-Shabazz said. And he is likely to press for even less, citing his client’s charitable work — including a 2017 Christmas block party featuring a gyrating, hip-hop Santa, ice sculptures, and a toy giveaway for hundreds of children in her North Philadelphia neighborhood.
“She was doing a lot of things for the good of the community at her own expense,” he said. “And as many people that loved her for doing it, there were people that hated her for it — people who actually wrote in letters and filed complaints that got this investigation started.”
El-Shabazz said the timing of his client’s indictment last year was no coincidence.
One month before, she made national headlines again for another prom send-off party she hosted. Based on the movie Black Panther, it featured a caged panther, a catered dinner, fashion consultants, and actors dressed in elaborate costumes representing the two sub-Saharan nations featured in the film.
It was one of 24 events she said she hosted in 2018, including a Cinderella-theme send-off with a horse-drawn carriage and a James Bond homage complete with helicopter ride for young prom dates. The total tab, Shuler told the Inquirer and Daily News at the time, was north of six figures.
Questions about how she could afford such over-the-top opulence seemed to follow her from fete to fete.
Most of it, Shuler said, came from charitable donations. The original Middle Eastern-themed soiree she threw for her son — a party with a price tag close to $25,000 — was funded by money she had saved over the years while running her soul food restaurant, Country Cookin’, on the 2800 block of North 22nd Street, she said.
“I work hard," she told the newspapers in 2017. "This ain’t no drug money. This ain’t none of that. This is all from muscle.”
But Shuler was also collecting government benefit checks while reporting to the Social Security Administration that she was unable to work due to a series of maladies including thyroid cancer, a stroke, and being hit by a car. She told the newspapers that she had vowed that if she lived to see her son reach his senior year of high school, she would go all out.
El-Shabazz said Tuesday that Shuler never set out to be a disability cheat.
“The way it’s been portrayed is that this was some grand scheme to defraud the government,” he said. “But there’s no question she had a stroke. There’s no question she was in rehab. There’s no question that when she actually applied for benefits, she did it from her rehab bed. What she actually pleaded guilty to was not informing the government when her circumstances changed.”
Shuler declined to comment as she left the courtroom Tuesday with her lawyer. He carried an $8,200 check — the first installment of the $37,000 debt to the government she will have to repay.