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GoFundMe scam leads to charges against Johnny Bobbitt, Kate McClure, Mark D’Amico

What started as a feel-good story took an improbable turn with the announcement of conspiracy charges.

(From left to right) Johnny Bobbitt, Kate McClure, and Mark D'Amico are facing charges in an alleged GoFundMe scam.
(From left to right) Johnny Bobbitt, Kate McClure, and Mark D'Amico are facing charges in an alleged GoFundMe scam.Read moreBurlington County Prosecutor's Office

Johnny Bobbitt Jr. and the Burlington County couple who launched a campaign that raised $400,000 to help the homeless man have all been arrested and charged with fabricating the feel-good story that prompted thousands to open their wallets for the former Marine at the start of last year's holiday season.

The Burlington County Prosecutor's Office announced the arrests and charges Thursday in what started as an investigation of the couple after Bobbitt accused them of squandering the money raised in a GoFundMe campaign purportedly set up to help him. But the "Paying It Forward" fundraising campaign was only paying into the trio's pockets, prosecutors said, a "completely made up" scam devised by the three after they met near SugarHouse Casino in the fall of 2017.

The couple, Kate McClure and Mark D'Amico, were arrested in Burlington County on Wednesday and released, officials said. U.S. Marshals, acting on a fugitive retainer from Burlington County, arrested Bobbitt on Wednesday in Philadelphia, where he was being held in jail with bail set at 10 percent of $50,000.

All three are charged with second-degree theft by deception and second-degree conspiracy to commit theft by deception. The crimes carry sentences between five and 10 years, prosecutors said.

What had started as a heartwarming story last November of a homeless veteran using his last $20 to help a stranded motorist began to unravel over the summer, when Bobbitt began to raise questions about how the money was spent. The tale then took an improbable turn Thursday with the announcement of the conspiracy charges.

"The entire campaign was predicated on a lie," said Burlington County Prosecutor Scott A. Coffina. "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 'completely made up.' She did not run out of gas on an I-95 off-ramp, and he did not spend his last $20 to help her. Rather, D'Amico, McClure and Bobbitt conspired to fabricate and promote a feel-good story that would compel donors to contribute to their causes."

Bobbitt, who has a history of struggling with drug use, accused McClure and D'Amico using the money as their own, forcing him to again panhandle on city streets. The couple said they did not steal the money and accused Bobbitt of lying.

An investigation and review of more than 60,000 text messages and thousands of pages of subpoenaed financial documents revealed that D'Amico and McClure spent the money on a BMW, a New Year's trip to Las Vegas, and high-end handbags, officials said. A breakdown of the cash withdrawals showed the $85,363 was withdrawn at, or in the immediate vicinity of, casinos located in Atlantic City, Bensalem, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. Within a few months of the campaign's creation, all the money had been spent, prosecutors said.

Meanwhile, GoFundMe has vowed a full refund to the more than 14,000 donors who contributed nearly $403,000 during the holiday season to help Bobbitt.

"While this type of behavior by an individual is extremely rare, it's unacceptable and clearly it has consequences," GoFundMe said in a statement, adding that misuse of the platform was rare.

Bobbitt had said he met McClure about a year ago as she was on her way to Philadelphia to pick up D'Amico at the SugarHouse Casino. After coming close to running out of gas on I-95, she has said she pulled off the freeway near Kensington, where Bobbitt, who had been homeless in Philly for several years, had been panhandling.

Bobbitt said he used his last $20 to buy McClure gasoline. She and D'Amico, they said, returned to repay him, sparking a relationship that was reported in the local press.

At the press conference Thursday, Coffina said the trio met a month prior to the GoFundMe campaign's launch at the SugarHouse Casino, where McClure and D'Amico liked to frequent. He said the three "hung out," "began talking," and it "grew from there."

After the couple started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to get Bobbitt off the streets, their story was retold around the globe. They raised more than $400,000 that the couple said would be managed by a financial adviser and with the help of an attorney. They bought Bobbitt a used SUV and a trailer that they parked near the small home the couple shared in rural Florence Township.

After months of that arrangement, the relationship soured.

Bobbitt had told the Inquirer and Daily News that the couple sold the SUV and then the camper, keeping the money for themselves. Bobbitt also questioned whose money paid for McClure's new BMW, vacations, shopping sprees, and gambling.

D'Amico, in an interview with the newspapers, conceded that he had spent $500 of the donations at SugarHouse, but that he repaid the amount from his winnings. He also said that he was managing the money instead of a financial adviser.

In that interview, D'Amico further said that he would rather burn the cash than give it to Bobbitt because the homeless man would use it to feed his drug habit.

Bobbitt sued them in August, and a Burlington County judge ordered them to turn over the remaining money to Bobbitt's attorneys. After telling reporters that they still had about half of the donations, their attorney revealed in court that it was all gone. That civil case was put on hold after prosecutors announced the criminal investigation. In September, authorities raided the couple's home and towed McClure's BMW from the house on a flatbed.

One of Bobbitt's pro-bono lawyers, Jacqueline Promislo of  Cozen O'Connor, said the once-homeless man recently completed a four-week residential drug treatment program. He has declined recent interview requests.

McClure and D'Amico are expected in court next on Dec. 24, Coffina said, while Bobbitt's next court date is pending his extradition.

Staff writer Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this story.