It was a feel-good story for the ages — a homeless military veteran’s random act of kindness and a New Jersey couple intent on helping him get back on his feet during the holidays — that inspired people to donate more than $400,000 in an online fundraiser when it went viral last fall.
But prosecutors say Mark D’Amico, Kate McClure and Johnny Bobbitt Jr. fabricated the story in an effort to raise money for themselves.
“The paying it forward story that drove this fundraiser might seem too good to be true,” Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina said at a press briefing in Mount Holly, N.J., on Thursday afternoon. “Unfortunately it was. The entire campaign was predicated on a lie.”
The three were each charged with second-degree conspiracy and theft by deception. If convicted on all charges, D’Amico, McClure and Bobbitt would each face 10 to 20 years in prison.
McClure and D’Amico surrendered to authorities on Wednesday and were released pending a Dec. 24 court date, Coffina said. Bobbitt Jr. was taken into custody on Wednesday in Philadelphia, where he is awaiting an extradition hearing.
Coffina said that less than an hour after the couple’s online campaign went live, McClure texted a friend to say the story of Bobbitt assisting her was fake.
“OK so wait, the gas part is completely made up, but the guy isn’t,” McClure wrote, according to prosecutors. “I had to make something up to make people feel bad.”
Ernest Badway, the attorney representing McClure and D’Amico, declined to comment. An attorney for Bobbitt did not immediately return a request seeking comment.
In a statement to Yahoo News, GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne said that all donors who contributed to the couple’s campaign will receive a full refund. The company said it will process all refunds “in the coming days.”
“We have a zero tolerance policy for fraudulent behavior,” Whithorne said. “One fraudulent campaign is one too many, but when it does take place, we take action to protect donors.”
The tale of the homeless good Samaritan and his would-be benefactors began in the middle of night last October, when McClure said she ran out of gas on a freeway ramp in Philadelphia.
According to McClure, Bobbitt approached her car, told her it wasn’t safe and went to purchase her gas with his last $20.
“Johnny did not ask me for a dollar, and I couldn’t repay him at that moment because I didn’t have any cash, but I have been stopping by his spot for the past few weeks,” McClure, a staffer for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, explained in her initial GoFundMe post. “I repaid him for the gas, gave him a jacket, gloves, a hat, and warm socks, and I give him a few dollars every time I see him.”
Inspired by Bobbitt’s selflessness, McClure and D’Amico launched a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $10,000 to get him an apartment and a “reliable vehicle” and to cover four to six months of expenses.
The story went viral, and the campaign raised more than $400,000 from over 14,000 donations.
“He will never have to worry about a roof over his head again!” the couple wrote in a subsequent post.
“She did not run out of gas on an off ramp, and he did not spend his last $20 to help her,” Coffina told reporters Thursday. “Rather D’Amico, McClure and Bobbitt conspired to pass off a fake feel-good story that would compel donors to contribute to their cause.”
The net proceeds generated by their campaign amounted to more than $367,000, which was electronically deposited into accounts controlled by McClure.
Months later, their “pay it forward” story began to unravel over control of their haul.
In August, Bobbitt filed suit against the couple, alleging they were using the money for themselves and had failed to pay him nearly $300,000. The civil case caught the attention of Coffina’s office, and a criminal investigation was launched.
In an appearance on NBC’s “Megyn Kelly Live,” McClure and D’Amico denied Bobbitt’s allegations, saying they withheld some of the money out of fear Bobbitt would spend it on drugs.
“He wanted his fair share of the take,” Coffina said. “But the money was long gone.”
According to prosecutors, D’Amico and McClure spent the vast majority of the money raised by mid-March, buying a car, going on trips and hitting the casinos “hard.” About $20,000 was spent on gambling, Coffina said, and nearly $90,000 was withdrawn at ATM locations near casinos.
In September, police raided the couple’s south Jersey home, but they were not charged at the time.
That month, GoFundMe announced that it would pay Bobbitt the rest of the money owed to him. It’s unclear if the company did so, or whether it would seek to reclaim the funds.
Coffina said it appears the couple met Bobbitt, a homeless Marine veteran, near an underpass during a trip to a casino at least a month before launching their campaign.
Bobbitt’s arrest came after a stint in rehab.
“He deserves out appreciation for his willingness to serve our country as a United States Marine,” Coffina said. “And he has our sympathy and concern for the homelessness he’s experienced as well as his publicized struggle with addiction. But it is imperative to keep in mind that he was fully complicit with this scheme.
“This type of case can damage the psyche of the public,” Coffina added. “A case like this can make generous people skeptical and hesitant to help someone else in need.”