Perhaps you’ve heard this one before: A couple of conmen devise a scam, then turn on each other, and all end up busted. It’s a tale as old as time, but in 2018, there are a few notable updates that makes the familiar irrepressible ability of scammers to find new ways to cheat people newly disturbing in our troublingly social-media-obsessed era.
On Thursday, Burlington County prosecutors officially filed second-degree felony charges of conspiracy and theft by deception against Johnny Bobbitt, 35, the homeless former Marine, and his alleged co-conspirators, faux-Good Samaritan couple Katelyn McClure, 28, and Mark D’Amico, 39. The three are all now alleged to have worked together to concoct a phony story and create a Gofundme campaign to defraud some 14,000 donors of more than $400,000 to enrich themselves. The couple turned themselves in to law enforcement on Wednesday, and Bobbitt was arrested in Kensington, still awaiting extradition on Thursday.
“The ‘paying it forward’ story that drove this campaign might seem too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was,” Burlington County DA Scott Coffina said at a press conference Thursday. “The entire campaign was predicated on a lie.”
It all began one year ago with a heart-warming tale, that Bobbit, a homeless veteran, gave McClure his last $20 to help her pay for gas for the ride home, after she ran out of gas while driving on I-95 into Philadelphia to pick up D’Amico, her boyfriend, at SugarHouse Casino. She claimed in the GoFundme’s description that she had since revisited Johnny several times to repay him with warm clothes and cereal bars, but was asking for the public’s support to help him change his life.
“I wish that I could do more for this selfless man, who went out of his way just to help me that day. He is such a great guy, and talking to him each time I see him makes me want to help him more and more,” McClure wrote. “Please help this man get into a home. It is already getting so cold out in Philadelphia, and I can’t imagine what it will be like to be out there all winter. Any little bit will help.”
But in fact, McClure and Bobbitt were in cahoots from the jump to create a story that would tug at the nation’s heartstrings and make them open up their bank accounts.
Coffina read a text message McClure sent a friend less than an hour after the GoFundme went live: “OK, so wait the gas part is completely made up, but the guys isn’t. I had to make something up to make people feel bad.”
Touched by the story, people around the nation forked over their hard-won earnings to donate to the online campaign donating $401,921, mostly in tiny increments, $5s, $10s and $20s. (GoFundme has said it will fully refund all donors.)
Coffina said the couple had met Bobbitt near SugarHouse, but from there, the story was falsified to enrich themselves. “She did not run out of gas on an I-95 off-ramp, and he did not spend his last $20 to help her,” he said.
This image of South Jersey woman Kate McClure with alleged homeless vet Johnny Bobbitt of Philadelphia was used in a viral GoFundme campaign that raised $400,000 for Bobbitt, which prosecutors now say was a con from the get-go. (Provided)
The story got national media attention. The Philadelphia Inquirer even photographed the trio in front of the gas station where Bobbitt falsely claimed he had bought the $20 of gas for McClure. But the truth of the situation began to come to light in August, when Bobbitt turned on the Florence Township, NJ couple, claiming they were denying him access to the funds and using it for home improvements and gambling. He said he had access to less than $75,000, and that a new trailer and SUV the couple bought for him – but kept in their names – was later sold.
The couple fired back, claiming Bobbitt got $200,000 of the donations, and claiming he was spending the money on drugs and that they had to protect him from himself. Both sides went on television shows to make their case against the other.
Internet sleuths ferreted out evidence from the couple’s social media accounts indicating that during the same time-frame, they had bought themselves a BMW, took numerous vacations to Las Vegas, Disney Land, and California and even took a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, all of which they claimed was paid for with their salaries. D’Amico is a carpenter. McClure is a secretary for the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
Eventually Bobbitt’s attorneys won a court order against the couple, ordering that the remaining $350,000 in the fund go to Bobbitt. Bobbitt’s lawyer later claimed the money was missing. Burlington County prosecutors’ suspicions grew after seeing the sides fight each other and began to investigate. D’Amico was arrested on a warrant for outstanding traffic tickets, and investigators raided the couple’s home in September. Now, it appears all three players in the alleged charade will bear criminal responsibility for the scam.
Coffina, asked if the alleged fraudsters might not have been caught if Bobbitt hadn’t sued his alleged co-conspirators, responded Thursday, “There’s a good chance they might have. … It certainly appears to have been a miscalculation on his part.”