THE FIRST BULLETIN Tuesday that a Bucks County woman and her 9-year-old daughter had been kidnapped made national news because it was all just so unbelievable - a car crash on a busy street, mysterious men in a black Cadillac and a mom who made a frantic 9-1-1 call while trapped inside a trunk.
Yesterday, the world learned exactly why the saga of 38-year-old Bonnie Sweeten and her 9-year-old daughter, Julia Rakoczy, was so incredible.
It just wasn't true.
And in an ending that was ironic beyond belief, mother and daughter were tracked down last night in America's ultimate land of make-believe, Orlando's Disneyworld, where police learned the pair had fled Tuesday on one-way airline tickets with $12,000 in cash.
"I think I'm in a dream," her husband, Richard Larry Sweeten, told a reporter from 6ABC before his wife and stepdaughter were found. "This has taken me by such a surprise. I just want her to know she has tons of support, and whatever it is, we can work through it." He then implored: "Don't do anything stupid."
The husband, like other family members and friends, seemed at a loss for Sweeten's bizarre behavior.
The kidnapping ruse began to unravel early yesterday, when investigators found Sweeten's undamaged SUV on a Center City street close to where she'd apparently made the frantic phone call. A parking ticket on the windshield called into question her entire account.
They also learned yesterday about Sweeten's recent and abrupt withdrawal of her 9-year-old daughter from the elementary school she attended in Bensalem - and about her alleged money problems.
Last night, Sweeten's former employer, a Bucks County attorney named Debbie Calitz, who also runs a charity, alleged to the Daily News that her ex-assistant Sweeten "stole money from my law practice."
Indeed, Bucks County D.A. Michelle Henry confirmed that Sweeten was under investigation for theft and was also dealing with domestic problems. Last night, the suburban mom had already been charged with making a false report and with identity theft for allegedly using a friend's driver's license to buy the airline tickets.
A mom's frantic call
It all started about 2 p.m. Tuesday with that alarming 9-1-1 call that was picked up by police in Philadelphia.
Sweeten - described on Tuesday by police as "very distressed" - told the operator that she was calling from the trunk of a black Cadillac after a fender-bender between that car and her GMC Yukon Denali that had happened just moments earlier.
She told the 9-1-1 operator that after the collision on heavily traveled Street Road in Bucks County's Upper Southampton Township, that "black men" from the Cadillac forced her into the trunk and sped off. Clearing up initially conflicting accounts, police said yesterday she had told operators during two calls that her daughter was in the trunk with her.
But from the very start, there were good reasons for authorities to be suspicious. There was no sign of Sweeten's SUV at the intersection where she said she had been abducted, and something about her call sounded fishy to investigators.
"They were supposed to be squeezed into a trunk together, but we never once heard the daughter crying or even breathing, for that matter," one investigator said.
Still, the serious nature of the allegation was enough to spark a massive police investigation and a search for the Cadillac and her SUV. Investigators enlisted the FBI and broadcast an Amber Alert for the missing child.
The hunt was also tailor-made for the throbbing cycle of the 24-hour news media. And so by early afternoon, viewers around the globe saw pictures of Sweeten - blond, blue-eyed and tall - and of her adorable daughter by an earlier marriage. By yesterday morning, the ongoing Amber Alerts on electronic highway signs were slowing traffic throughout the Philadelphia region.
TV viewers also learned that Julia was an avid softball player and cheerleader at Belmont Hills Elementary School in Bensalem and that her father - Sweeten's ex-husband, Anthony Rakoczy - had described her as an energetic girl who "will talk your ear off" and "never keeps her room clean."
Viewers eventually saw the distraught father plead on MSNBC for Julia's safe return. "I just can't imagine what's going on with her now," he tearfully told a news anchor. "I have no clue why this is happening. We have no enemies."
Indeed, the saga seemed puzzling to everyone. Sweeten appeared to be living an idyllic life on a quiet cul-de-sac in Feasterville with her husband, with whom she has an 8-month-old daughter, Faith. (Sweeten also has a 15-year-old daughter, Paige).
"You don't hear about that stuff in this area, kidnapping," said Sean Tchourumoff, a neighbor. "They were like a typical young family. A lot of the time they had parties and invited the whole neighborhood over. They were very social."
He recalled a party they had last summer at which there was a band and a Moon Bounce for the kids.
But in the dead of night, clues would begin to emerge that cast serious doubt on whether there had been a kidnapping at all.
The story unravels
The first major break came at 1:30 a.m., when Philadelphia police found Sweeten's SUV parked parked at 15th and Chestnut streets in Center City. Investigators noticed a parking ticket on the windshield of the SUV that had been issued at 2:20 p.m. Tuesday, about a half-hour after Sweeten called 9-1-1.
Questions arose over the odds that a kidnapper could have traveled in such a short time from Upper Southampton to Center City - a 25-mile trip - and been ticketed. Soon, the whole story began to unravel.
One odd piece of information was that Julia had been withdrawn from Bensalem School District on May 1, a district spokeswoman said. The spokeswoman declined to cite reasons for the withdrawal, citing student privacy policies.
Then, over the course of the day allegations of financial trouble involving Sweeten began to emerge as well.
Sweeten had worked as director and fundraiser for The Carlitz Foundation, a charity run by Debbie Carlitz, according to the group's Web site. The foundation aims to "stop rising youth epidemics ranging from autism to genocide," it states.
According to court documents, Sweeten also worked as Carlitz's assistant when Carlitz was a practicing attorney in Feasterville.
"She worked with me for 15 years and stole money from my law practice," Carlitz alleged during a brief phone interview with the Daily News last night. "She used a [bank] account from the foundation to launder money from the law practice."
Carlitz said in the interview it was correct to refer to Sweeten as "a former employee."
Investigators learned yesterday that Sweeten had withdrawn about $12,000 in cash from various Philadelphia-area banks in recent days, suggesting that she had been planning to leave the area. The nature of these accounts was unknown.
They also discovered that Sweeten had borrowed a co-worker's license - ostensibly for dealing with a pension matter - and that this was the ID she used to buy tickets to travel to Florida.
As Carlitz spoke, police investigators were getting their most important break in the case, finding that Sweeten and her daughter had been captured on video at Philadelphia International Airport, en route for Florida. By 8:40 last night, Sweeten and her daughter had been tracked down at Disneyworld as they attempted to return to the Grand Floridian resort, where they had arrived on Tuesday. Their room was booked through tomorrow night.
Allegations spur questions
In the wake of the high-profile hoax that dominated the local news for the day, there were still many unanswered questions, as well as confusion and even anger in some quarters.
In particular, some black leaders were expressing outrage at yet-another high-profile case in which unfounded allegations were hurled about "black males" committing a violent crime.
J. Whyatt Mondesire, Philadelphia NAACP president, called the case "a disgusting reminder of Susan Smith" - the South Carolina woman who drowned her two children in 1994 but blamed a nonexistent black carjacker - "where the cops fell for it." He added: "While we have an African-American in the White House, obviously a lot of minds need changing."
But mainly there is just a lot of bafflement - especially on the quiet cul-de-sac in Feasterville where it all started.
"Everything seemed fine," said neighbor Tchourumoff. "All the neighbors were out this weekend. I did a barbecue. I walked over to [the Sweeten's] house to borrow a shovel last Sunday." *
Staff writer St. John Barned-Smith contributed to this report.