The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A homeless veteran’s heartwarming story led to a $400,000 GoFundMe. Prosecutors say it was a lie.

Burlington County, N.J., Prosecutor Scott A. Coffina on Nov. 15 announced charges against three people involved in an online fundraising scam. (Video: Reuters)
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A couple’s feel-good story, about a homeless veteran who had helped a woman after she ran out of gas on a highway exit ramp, reverberated widely, drawing high-profile media appearances and more than $400,000 in donations the couple said would go to help the veteran.

On Thursday, the last vestiges of the story appeared to come tumbling down after law enforcement officials in New Jersey announced theft charges against all three individuals: the couple, Kate McClure and Mark D’Amico, as well as Johnny Bobbitt, the homeless man they said they were going to support with the money that had flowed in.

Officials said the trio’s story, which was published on GoFundMe with the title “Paying it Forward,” in November 2017, was all a ruse, a conspiracy on the part of all three to commit theft.

“The entire campaign was predicated on a lie,” Scott A. Coffina, the prosecutor of Burlington County in New Jersey, said at a news conference on Thursday.

Coffina said no assistance was ever given at or near a gas station, citing some of the more than 60,000 text messages he said investigators had pored over in the case.

“Ok so wait the gas part is completely made up, but the guy isn’t,” McClure texted a friend less than an hour after the GoFundMe page went live, Coffina said. “I had to make something up to make people feel bad. So shush about the made up stuff.”

“She did not run out of gas on an I-95 off-ramp, and he did not spend his last $20 to help her,” the prosecutor said.

McClure and D’Amico, who surrendered Wednesday in New Jersey, and Bobbitt, who is awaiting extradition in Pennsylvania, face sentences of five to 10 years in jail if convicted, Coffina said.

The charges are the latest turn in a saga that has unfolded over more than a year, capturing media headlines as the heartwarming story took off at lightning speed and then began to crumble after Bobbitt filed a lawsuit against the couple.

At first, the tale of a seemingly selfless gesture made by the homeless veteran — and the couple’s efforts to pay him back — enthralled people reading about it online, drawing donations from more than 14,000 people and media coverage from local outlets and organizations such as CNN, The Washington Post and BBC News.

“I got her gas to help her get on her way; I wasn’t expecting anything in return,” Bobbitt told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

About $402,000 had poured into the campaign, an amount Bobbitt told the show felt like “winning the lottery.”

But last summer, he began to complain publicly about not receiving enough of the money that had supposedly been donated for his rehabilitation. At the end of August, Bobbitt filed a lawsuit against the couple that accused them of fraud and conspiracy, of using the “GoFundMe account as their personal piggy bank to fund a lifestyle that they could not otherwise afford."

Investigators searched the couple’s home and hauled away a BMW car they had recently purchased. In a high-profile interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly, McClure and D’Amico insisted $150,000 of the money they raised remained for Bobbitt. D’Amico said at other points he was holding on to some of the money but would gladly turn it over to Bobbitt once he kicked an opioid addiction and managed to hold down a job.

Police search home of couple accused of squandering $400,000 raised for a homeless veteran

By the time Bobbitt filed the lawsuit, the money was gone, according to Coffina.

“By the middle of March, D’Amico and McClure squandered the vast amount of money,” Coffina said. “Among other things, they bought a car, took trips, purchased high-end handbags and hit the casinos — hard.”

The final twist in the story came this week with the news that prosecutors had also charged Bobbitt. Coffina spoke with a sense of sympathy for Bobbitt, noting his service in the Marine Corps, but said he had no other choice.

“He deserves our appreciation for his willingness to serve our country as a U.S. Marine. And he has our sympathy and concern for the homelessness he’s experienced,” Coffina said. “But it is imperative to keep in mind that he was fully complicit with this scheme to defraud contributors, promoting the campaign in multiple media appearances and posing with D’Amico and McClure for a Philly Inquirer story in front of a gas station that he did not buy gas from.”

Coffina said Bobbitt had posted a similar story about helping a woman with dinner money while he was living in North Carolina in 2012 on Facebook and said blame for the plan lay with all three suspects.

He said GoFundMe told his office it would refund the money contributed by everyone who had donated.

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