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Dispute over stolen amount delays Sweeten sentencing

Sentencing for Bonnie Sweeten - the Bucks County mother of two who faked her own kidnapping, blamed it on two black men, and then later admitted stealing about $1 million - was delayed Wednesday as lawyers jousted over how much she actually stole.

Sentencing for Bonnie Sweeten - the Bucks County mother of two who faked her own kidnapping, blamed it on two black men, and then later admitted stealing about $1 million - was delayed Wednesday as lawyers jousted over how much she actually stole.

U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. listened to defense attorneys argue for a shorter sentence by contending that Sweeten stole less than the $1.2 million the government alleges.

If Yohn finds that Sweeten, 40, stole only about $950,000, largely from a law office she managed, Sweeten could get a lesser sentence than the 102 to 121 months sought by Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf. Yohn is expected to pass sentence this month.

Defense attorney James McHugh tried to get Sweeten's former employer, disbarred lawyer Debbie Carlitz, to admit that she knew of or approved $150,000 in allegedly fraudulent loans.

Carlitz conceded that she paid little attention to her law firm's finances, but said she was taken in by Sweeten, whom she considered as much a friend as an employee. Carlitz lost her law license in 2009.

Carlitz's Feasterville law office was ground zero for the complex series of thefts and frauds that started in 2004.

Using the skills and access she picked up as a paralegal, Sweeten forged Carlitz's name on checks and loans, forged judicial documents, and falsely claimed she was a licensed lawyer in New Jersey. She intercepted settlement checks due clients, and deposited the money in her family's bank account.

Sweeten, in a green prison jumpsuit, said no more than two words at the hearing.

Along with $640,854 pilfered from the law firm, she has admitted stealing $283,000 from the retirement account of her daughters' great-grandfather, who is now 95 and suffering from dementia. The man's son, Patrick M. Biondino, testified that Sweeten was trusted by his sister - Sweeten's former mother-in-law - and his father even after a divorce and remarriage.

Biondino said his father does not know that the mother of his great-grandchildren had stolen the money he had earned working in a steel mill and added, "If he knew, it would probably kill him." Biondino said his father worked double shifts at the former Fairless Hills plant of U.S. Steel Corp. so he would not have to rely on his children in retirement.

His father's retirement account had a net loss of about $130,000 after compensation from the investment firm.

Sweeten in May 2009 made a frantic 911 call in which she claimed she and her then-9-year-old daughter had been carjacked and kidnapped by two African American men. An Amber Alert and a multistate manhunt ensued, only to have Sweeten and her daughter turn up the next day at Walt Disney World.

Sweeten fled as Biondino's sister demanded repayment of the stolen money and regulators from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel of the state Supreme Court were scrutinizing the law firm's finances.

The kidnapping ruse resulted in a nine- to 24-month sentence in the Bucks County Prison for identity theft and filing false reports. Sweeten has since been held in Philadelphia's Federal Detention Center. She pleaded guilty in June to wire fraud and identify theft.

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