Bonnie Sweeten wants the world to know she is sorry.
In a hushed Bucks County courtroom yesterday morning, the mother of three straightened her red jail jumpsuit, ignored the scratch of reporters' pens and implored the judge, who just four months earlier had called her a "calculating, manipulative, cold-hearted woman," for leniency.
"I don't know who I was that day," she said, referring to May 26, when she captured the attention of the region by calling police to report that two black men had kidnapped her and her 9-year-old daughter. Within hours, cops determined that she had faked the abduction to escape escalating financial problems and lies, and had instead taken her daughter to Disney World.
"I'm sick over what I did. I can't begin to apologize enough. I keep telling everyone I know: 'I'm sorry,' " said Sweeten, 38, her voice cracking with emotion and her hair - her signature blond nearly grown out and replaced with gray and dark brown - hanging lank in her face.
Her 10-minute public penitence was meant to persuade Judge Jeffrey L. Finley that she's ready for early release from prison, after serving nearly four months of her nine-to-24-month sentence. Her attorney, Louis R. Busico, had petitioned for her release to house arrest, arguing that she's been a model prisoner who has gained "a whole new perspective on life" behind bars.
Finley granted the petition, noting that when he levied her original sentence in August, he'd exceeded the recommended guidelines, which called for probation, because she'd seemed so unrepentant.
But yesterday, Finley said he saw the remorse she'd lacked in the summer.
"I sense a different attitude today than when you were here in August," he said. "You appear to have gotten some of the message, to maybe begin to understand how horrific your actions were . . . [and] I don't consider you to be a person who poses a threat of violence to the community."
Both sides claimed the decision as a victory.
Although she'll be freed to complete her sentence under house arrest with longtime friends in Trevose, Finley delayed her release until Feb. 27, when she will have served six months of her original sentence. He set three other conditions for her release: She must wear an electronic-monitoring anklet while under house arrest; she cannot get any "misconducts" before her release, and she must continue rehabilitative programs while in prison.
Sweeten testified that she's participated in prison programs on such topics as release and reintegration, decisions, socialization and untangling relationships. She also told Finley she participates in Bible study and a family-support group, speaks with visiting college students about being incarcerated, helps new inmates adjust to prison life and works in the prison laundry.
"I know I hurt many people when I did what I did in May. I don't think I realized it as much until I went to prison," Sweeten testified.
She wept as she recounted her relatives' frequent visits.
"I visit my kids through Plexiglas. I have to apologize every time I see them," she said. "My 16-year-old, I apparently was her hero, and I don't know how I could be that again. I preach to my children to make good choices. I didn't make good choices; I was a hypocrite."
Sweeten's ex-husband, Anthony Rakoczy, was among her supporters in the courtroom; he left without comment to reporters.
Sweeten remains under federal investigation for the alleged crimes that led to the kidnapping hoax.
Yesterday, Bucks County District Attorney Michelle A. Henry declined to discuss the probe, except to say detectives suspect that she stole "far more" than the $280,000 she allegedly swiped from the retirement fund of her ex-husband's senile grandfather.
Court documents show that Sweeten often posed as a lawyer and made up phony business cards, stole $4,000 from a former co-worker's 401(k) account and pilfered thousands of dollars in settlement payouts and civil damages awarded to clients of the Feasterville law firm where she'd been a paralegal.