A woman and a homeless man who fabricated a heartwarming story of compassion that drew more than $400,000 in donations on GoFundMe pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges on Wednesday.
Johnny Bobbitt, 36, pleaded guilty in federal court in Camden, New Jersey, to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, while Katelyn McClure, 28, pleaded guilty to a count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Sentencing for McClure is scheduled for June 19; she faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Bobbitt faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His sentencing date has not been set.
The two also face state charges in New Jersey, as does Mark D’Amico, who was McClure’s boyfriend when the crimes were committed.
In 2017, the authorities say, the three wove an irresistible yarn. Posting to GoFundMe, a crowdfunding site, McClure and D’Amico said that she had run out of gas while driving home in the Philadelphia area, and that Bobbitt, a homeless veteran, had spent his last $20 to buy gasoline for her. The couple said they wanted to raise $10,000 to thank him and get him off the streets.
GoFundMe allows anyone to suggest a cause worthy of donations, whether it’s classroom supplies, life-or-death medical care or a border wall. With thousands of causes competing for attention, users often rely on emotional appeals to stand out.
This time, it worked. Buoyed by social media and coverage from the international news media, 14,347 people donated $402,706 to the campaign within three weeks.
From there, the story became much less inspiring.
Federal prosecutors say McClure and D’Amico rapidly spent most of the money on the likes of gambling, vacations, a luxury car, clothing and expensive handbags, much of which was later seized. Authorities said the couple set up a bank account for Bobbitt in December 2017 and deposited just $25,000; the couple later justified that as a way to keep him from spending it all at once.
Bobbitt sued the couple in August, saying that he had ultimately received just $75,000, including the value of a camper he temporarily lived in, and that they had spent the rest. GoFundMe announced in September that it would help cover the costs to make sure Bobbitt got all of the money he was due.
But the lucrative narrative would soon fall apart as well. The federal authorities read more than 60,000 text messages sent by McClure and D’Amico, including one McClure sent to a friend an hour after the GoFundMe campaign began.
“OK, so wait, the gas part is completely made up but the guy isn’t,” McClure said in the text message. “I had to make something up so people will feel bad.”
After GoFundMe fees, they had netted $367,108. In March, McClure sent a text message to D’Amico saying they had less than $10,000 of the donated money left, authorities said.
GoFundMe said in November that it would refund all donations for Bobbitt, calling the misbehavior on the platform “extremely rare” and “unacceptable.”
McClure’s lawyer, James Gerrow, told reporters on Wednesday that her intentions were genuine.
“In my view, this was benign as she just wanted to help get him off the streets,” the lawyer said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Mark Davis, D’Amico’s lawyer, told the Associated Press that D’Amico had not been charged by federal authorities and denied any wrongdoing.