Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2018, the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office announced that the three central figures in this story had been arrested and charged with second-degree theft by deception and other offenses. Prosecutors concluded that their dramatic tale of rescue and redemption had been “completely made up.” Story detailing the findings can be found here.
Johnny S. Bobbitt Jr. now has a future that didn’t seem possible only a month ago.
The homeless, recovering drug addict was panhandling for meals and sleeping under an I-95 bridge in Philadelphia when he spent his last $20 to rescue a woman stranded nearby when her car ran out of gas.
The thankful motorist, Kate McClure, 27, and her boyfriend, Mark D'Amico, 38, set up a GoFundMe account for Bobbitt, and the story of his generosity went viral, bringing in 14,300 donations totaling more than $400,000.
The 34-year-old North Carolina native now has a South Jersey home, a cellphone, a computer, and a used pickup truck, McClure said.
"Three weeks ago … I was homeless on the streets of Philadelphia," said the Marine veteran during a lengthy interview at a local hotel where he remains until he can move into his house. "I really didn't have any hope, didn't know what my future was."
McClure sees Bobbitt as a person with a big heart and strong presence. "His personality comes through the door before he does."
He knows it's up to him to seize this opportunity, but Bobbitt believes his 18-month homeless stint has motivated him to change.
"I will never ever regret that period of being homeless on the streets," he said. "That alone, honestly, really changed my life. It's going to change everything from here on out."
Although Bobbitt has done some interviews, he's turned down most. He said he is "embarrassed" that his addiction has been publicized, and "ashamed" that his family not only learned through the media that he was homeless but were thrown in the spotlight against their will.
His addiction started years ago when he lived in Henderson, N.C., a small town 45 miles north of Raleigh. He developed a drug habit so fierce he lost his job as a paramedic, his fiancee (his one true love, he says), his boat, and his home.
Public records give a spotty picture of his past, working on his family's farm before he became a paramedic. He served with the Marines for 14 months but had never been deployed. Bobbitt spent most of his time in the military as an ammunition technician in North Carolina before he left the corps in February 2004. He won't say why he did not serve for four years.
"That's my business," he responds. Then he apologizes and fidgets, uncomfortable with the questions.
Before coming to Philadelphia, Bobbitt spent time in Montana, where he said he quit taking drugs. He came here in 2016 to buy a pickup truck and and was told he had a job. When he arrived, he said, there was no job and he began using drugs again and living on the streets. This past July, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor drug offenses, for buying heroin, and was placed on probation for a year, according to court records.
When he talks about his new house, and a Christmas tree, a wide smile emerges and his words pour out in a Carolina drawl.
Maybe he'll return to college, he said. First he needs to clear up an eye infection. Most important, he needs professional recovery treatment to stay off the heroin, he said.
Bobbitt promises he won't squander the money, and there are already safeguards in place to make that happen.
As D'Amico put it, "We're not angelic people looking for a cause." The Burlington County couple did not have experience managing that kind of money and hired an accountant, an attorney, and a financial adviser to create two trusts, they said. One will provide modest income until Bobbitt gets a job, another will be invested for retirement. Bobbitt can only make large withdrawals if there is a medical emergency, and even then, D'Amico said, it will require his signature as well as McClure's and the fund manager's.
The media frenzy has left McClure and D'Amico stressed out.
Bobbitt has needed their help for everyday tasks like getting a driver's license. They wanted to scream at officials who created needless delays and forced Bobbitt to go through unnecessary hurdles to get a duplicate of the license he lost, McClure said, waving the cellphone she used for hours to get things done.
They took him shopping for clothes, house furnishings, and contacted the military to replace Bobbitt's discharge papers.
"It's like we had a child instantly," said D'Amico, with McClure nodding in agreement.
D'Amico was adamant that Bobbitt will eventually take control of his life. "I told him that I was not taking on this project for life," he said.
In setting up the GoFundMe account, D'Amico had hoped to raise $10,000 to rent Bobbitt an apartment for a year. McClure, less optimistic, wasn't sure anyone would donate.
After the local Burlington County Times broke the story, larger media outlets such as NJ.com followed. A story on Philly.com was distributed by the Associated Press, reaching readers around the globe who, by Thanksgiving, were donating at a pace of $15,000 an hour. (GoFundMe kept approximately $30,000 in fees.)
The three appeared on Good Morning America, with Bobbitt as the face of the homeless and McClure, a secretary for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, and D'Amico, a carpenter, as beacons of hope.
McClure and D'Amico think Bobbitt is ready to make changes. If he doesn't, D'Amico joked, "I'll kill him."
More serious, D'Amico glanced at Bobbitt and warned, "If I drive by that guardrail and I see you out there, I'll drive by like I don't know you."
Bobbitt is still adjusting. McClure points out he is still wearing jeans from his months on the street. He only wants specific older styles of Wrangler or Levi jeans and doesn't want to waste money on new ones. He searched for the best price to buy socks, McClure said, adding that she urged him, "Just pick some!"
Not long ago, Bobbitt wrote his first Instagram post about his new home.
Since receiving help, Bobbitt said he has assisted two homeless friends, and is now promoting a fund set up by a Philadelphia elementary school student to help a disabled veteran.
An avid reader, Bobbitt said he was particularly moved by a novel he just finished — See Me, by Nicholas Sparks. It is a tale about a troubled young man who has repeated brushes with the law and is given a second chance to turn his life around.