For GoFundMe scammers, the lying was easy
In an age where it's easy to put anyone under a digital microscope, Kate McClure, Mark D'Amico, and Johnny Bobbitt Jr. managed to rob more than 14,000 people without breaking a sweat.
It was a crisp late November morning at South Philadelphia's sports complex, and the ballpark and stadiums were dark and silent.
This rare moment of tranquillity in the normally hectic district was interrupted by a commotion in the parking lot of Xfinity Live!, where several hundred people were gathered in a tent for a good cause: Preston & Steve's Camp Out for Hunger, the annual food drive that WMMR's morning crew organizes for Philabundance.
The crowd was especially enthused because hosts Preston Elliot and Steve Morrison had three special guests on hand: Kate McClure, Mark D'Amico, and Johnny Bobbitt Jr.
In the space of just a few weeks, the trio had received international attention for their unlikely friendship, which had supposedly formed when Bobbitt, a homeless veteran, spent his last $20 to buy gasoline for a frightened McClure, who said her car sputtered to a stop at the bottom of a highway exit ramp late at night in Port Richmond. To repay Bobbitt's kindness, McClure and D'Amico, her boyfriend, launched a GoFundMe campaign that went viral and raised $402,706 in just a month.
Almost no one knew then, in 2017, that it was all a scam, that McClure, D'Amico, and Bobbitt would all be arrested last week on charges of theft and conspiracy after collectively blowing through the donated money before turning on each other as their goodwill curdled into anger and resentment.
After duping more than 14,000 trusting donors, McClure, 28, and D'Amico, 39, traveled to Las Vegas, Disney World, and Disneyland, gambled in numerous casinos, and splurged on a BMW and an array of designer handbags.
What's remarkable in hindsight is how effectively the three sold their phony story — first to donors and then to reporters, talk-show hosts, and celebrities. In an age where it's easy to put anyone under a digital microscope, McClure, D'Amico, and Bobbitt managed to pull off their con without breaking a sweat. And they did it publicly, with smiles on their faces.
Nick McIlwain, a producer on Preston & Steve, remembers the warm reception the trio received at Camp Out for Hunger, where attendees sometimes include people who were forced to rely on Philabundance when they fell on hard times.
"We were all roped in," he said. "It was a believable story. This was something you could look at and say, 'Wow, all right, there's still good out there.' "
Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina, in announcing the criminal charges Thursday, described the GoFundMe scam as an "irresistible, runaway tale" that took advantage of people who wanted to believe an inspiring story of unexpected kindness.
"This type of case can damage the psyche of the public," Coffina said. "A case like this can make generous people skeptical, and a little more hesitant to help someone else in need."
GoFundMe officials pledged to repay all of the donors who contributed to the campaign, which McClure had simply titled "Paying It Forward" and adorned with a photo D'Amico took of her and Bobbitt at the dimly lit exit ramp where they'd supposedly met.
Investigators who combed through more than 60,000 messages between McClure and D'Amico learned that the couple had actually met Bobbitt, who battled a drug addiction, at SugarHouse Casino in Fishtown and somehow became enamored with the idea of helping him.
It's unclear which of the three concocted the story of the phony roadside rescue, but Bobbitt's Facebook page shows that in 2012, he claimed to have come to the aid of a woman in North Carolina who simultaneously ran out of gas and developed a flat tire in front of a Walmart.
"Everybody blows the horn but of course no-one helps her," he wrote. "So I run to the gas station and then change her tire. I spent the only cash I had for supper but at least she can get her little children home safe."
Coffina noted that Bobbitt's Facebook post was "remarkably similar" to the story line of the GoFundMe campaign. "I don't think that's a coincidence," he said.
Text messages recovered by investigators revealed that on the same day McClure launched the GoFundMe campaign, she confided to a friend that the story was fabricated.
"I had to make something up to make people feel bad," she wrote.
The friend cautioned McClure that the scheme could backfire. McClure's mother, too, pointed out that scamming donors out of money could land her daughter in jail.
Their warnings went unheeded. McClure and Bobbitt appeared on Good Morning America, where they laughed easily with national news correspondent Adrienne Bankert.
McClure calmly recounted the backstory, explaining the epiphany she and D'Amico had.
"What if we started a GoFundMe for this guy? We set it up in the car on the way home," she said.
Bobbitt, 35, sat next to her, his eyes hidden behind thick sunglasses.
"It's like winning the lottery," he said of the donated windfall, which McClure and D'Amico vowed they would protect by hiring an accountant, an attorney, and a financial adviser to create two trusts for Bobbitt.
By late March, the $367,108 that GoFundMe had deposited in McClure's bank account and onto prepaid debit cards the couple had access to was gone.
Prosecutors allege that only a small portion — close to $32,000 — was deposited into an account for Bobbitt. The couple also spent $18,000 to buy him a trailer, which they parked on their property in rural Florence Township, Burlington County, and $2,300 on a hotel where he stayed last December.
When cameras weren't trained on them, the relationship between Bobbitt and the couple was clearly more tense.
In April, when a reporter for the Inquirer and Daily News visited the couple's property, the modest house was in disarray. McClure was at work as a receptionist for the state Department of Transportation. D'Amico, a carpenter by trade, was at home, complaining that he had to take Bobbitt to rehab.
Bobbitt, trying to kick an addiction to heroin after an earlier failed stint in rehab, later complained to a reporter that the couple had choked off his access to the donated money.
By summer, the finger-pointing grew even uglier. D'Amico and McClure sold Bobbitt's trailer and ordered him off their property. He found himself back on the streets of Philadelphia, panhandling for money and drugs. In time, with the help of an outreach worker, he got an audience with lawyers from the high-profile firm Cozen O'Connor, who took up his cause pro bono and very publicly demanded an accounting of the GoFundMe proceeds.
D'Amico and McClure tried to put a positive spin on the rapidly deteriorating foundation of their once-winning tale by appearing that same month on NBC's Megyn Kelly Today.
McClure again tapped into their shared ability to sell heartwarming sentiment. "He is our family," she said of Bobbitt. "I still think, to this day, that is our family."
Whatever bond was there is now shattered. McClure's attorney, Jim Gerrow Jr., said she and D'Amico are no longer together. Both were processed and released, while Bobbitt is being held at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia.
Bobbitt was arrested Wednesday in Philadelphia, where he faced drug charges three times between 2016 and 2017, and was expected to be extradited to New Jersey.
If the case against the three goes to trial, a clearer picture may emerge of how exactly they decided to prey on the public's sympathy. Coffina, the prosecutor, said investigators "went where the evidence led us."
He suggested that McClure crafted the lie about running out of gas, but her attorney insisted that D'Amico and Bobbitt were the true masterminds.
There's no question, however, that the three of them succeeded in persuading thousands of strangers, across the country and around the world, from the streets of England to a parking lot in South Philly, to let down their guards and briefly believe in something positive and pure.
That it all proved to be a cynical ploy seems especially cruel.
"I honestly, firmly believe there are more good people than bad," said McIlwain, the Preston & Steve producer. "People like these, if the allegations are true, are really a minority. But it's certainly a punch to the gut."