Though she won't be going home for the holidays, Christmas came early for Bonnie Sweeten this year.

The Feasterville mother, who faked her abduction and fled to Walt Disney World with her 9-year-old daughter, will receive an early end to her stay at Bucks County Prison.

Instead of nine to 24 months, she will serve six months and be released Feb. 27, Bucks County Judge Jeffrey L. Finley ruled yesterday.

Sweeten, though, remains under a federal investigation stemming from allegations of fraud and massive thefts at the Feasterville law office where she worked as a legal assistant.

During a hearing in Doylestown that her attorney requested, Finley said Sweeten would spend the balance of her term on house arrest and wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.

"I sense a different attitude today than when you were here in August," Finley told Sweeten, 38, who was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit.

During the August sentencing hearing, Finley called Sweeten "a calculating, manipulative, hardhearted woman" for reporting to police May 26 that she and her child had been kidnapped, although no crime had occurred.

The report, filed in Bucks County, sparked a national Amber alert for the missing pair, who were tracked to Florida by police and then returned here. She pleaded guilty to charges of false reports and identity theft, both misdemeanors.

Sweeten seemed contrite yesterday as she testified. She told the judge that every time she heard about an Amber alert, she thought back over her actions with shame and regret.

"I don't know who I was that day. I'm guilty, and I can't begin to apologize," Sweeten testified.

She shared with the judge her accomplishments while in prison: helping others adjust to prison life, taking a job in the laundry, and attending classes on decisionmaking and reintegration into society.

Sweeten described speaking to college students who were touring the prison about the perils of going to jail; she told of her work as cell-block leader.

In one emotional moment, Sweeten told the judge that incarceration had changed her, had opened her eyes to one bad decision after another that she had made before she was charged in the case, and that she desired more than anything in the world to be reunited with her family.

The speech took several minutes. Finley seemed convinced of her remorse.

"I suspect the past few months have given you plenty of time to reflect on your conduct, and maybe understand how horrific your actions were," he said.

In arguments before the ruling, Sweeten's attorney, Louis Busico, emphasized that her time behind bars had helped her evolve.

"She's a changed person from the woman at sentencing, and a model prisoner," Busico said.

Bucks County District Attorney Michelle A. Henry, though, in a statement to the court before the ruling, cautioned Finley to consider Sweeten a flight risk.

"This was an elaborate, intricate false report," Henry argued. "It was well thought out. The court really got it right the first time."

Finley said Sweeten's shortened prison term would hinge on her continued good conduct and participation in prison programs.

Once released from jail, Sweeten will spend her house arrest with a longtime friend who lives on Spruce Avenue in Trevose, Henry said. Her second husband, who lives nearby, has filed for divorce.

Sweeten worked as a paralegal for Feasterville attorney Debbie Carlitz from mid-1996 through last May. Last spring, according to papers filed before her Aug. 27 sentencing, the law firm needed to pay out $280,000 in personal-injury cases, but lacked the required funds.

Sweeten "unlawfully obtained the funds from her first husband's paternal grandfather," and then wrote a bad check to repay him, the papers said.

"On the day [she] believed it would be discovered that the check was not good, she did the unthinkable by staging the abduction and kidnapping," according to the court documents.

The FBI is investigating the case.

Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.
Inquirer staff writer Larry King contributed to this article, which also contains information from the Associated Press.