MOUNT HOLLY, New Jersey (WABC) -- A GoFundMe account that started after a homeless man's apparent good deed went viral was actually a criminal scheme, authorities said Thursday, a hoax that culminated with the arrests of the three people involved.
Prosecutor Scott Coffina, of the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office, said Mark D'Amico, Kate McClure and Johnny Bobbitt are all charged with theft by deception and conspiracy. In light of the charges, GoFundMe has promised a full refund to every donor who contributed to the $400,000 that was raised.
Coffina said the tale was "fictitious" and "formed the basis of a scam" that was "concocted to compel kind-hearted individuals to contribute to the cause."
"The entire campaign was predicated on a lie," Coffina said. "Less than an hour after the GoFundMe campaign went live McClure, in a text exchange with a friend, stated that the story about Bobbitt assisting her was fake."
McClure and D'Amico surrendered Wednesday and have been released pending a future court date. Bobbitt is in custody in Philadelphia and is awaiting extradition to Burlington County. If convicted, they each face 5 to 10 years in prison.
Coffina said the trio likely would have gotten away with the crime had Bobbitt not complained about not getting his fair share in a lawsuit filed over the summer.
Late last year, D'Amico and McClure started the GoFundMe account for Bobbitt, who they said spent his last $20 to buy gas for McClure after she was stranded along I-95 in Philadelphia. Claiming they wanted to "pay it forward," they launched the campaign with the goal of raising $10,000 to help Bobbitt get back on his feet. It quickly went viral and the money poured in, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars.
However, Coffina said investigators learned McClure texted a friend less than an hour after the campaign went live, saying the story was "completely made up." She did not run out of gas, Coffina said, and Bobbitt did not spend $20 to help her.
Instead, the couple met Bobbitt at a local casino, befriended him and came up with the scam, Coffina said. He added that the trio staged the photo at the gas station that accompanied the GoFundMe pitch.
The account, at first, led to appearances for Bobbitt and McClure on national TV programs, but it soon turned into a dispute over the money as Bobbitt publicly accused the couple of dipping into the funds, and a court battle ensued.
The Bordentown couple denied the allegations, claiming they were wary of giving Bobbitt large sums because they feared he would buy drugs. Bobbitt sued the couple over alleged mismanagement of the funds, claiming they had complete control over his money and had used thousands of it to go on lavish trips, shopping sprees and gambling.
The total amount available would have been just over $360,000 after GoFundMe fees. Bobbitt said he received approximately $75,000 in cash, goods and services, and he claimed the couple spent the rest.
The couple claimed through their attorney they gave Bobbitt $200,000, and D'Amico had said Bobbitt spent $25,000 in less than two weeks last year on drugs, as well as paying for overdue legal bills and sending money to family. Bobbitt's attorney had said Bobbitt was entering a residential program for drug treatment.
The couple also bought Bobbitt a camper with some of the cash and parked it on land McClure's family owns in New Jersey. But Bobbitt became homeless again after D'Amico told him in June he had to leave.
Sister station Action News in Philadelphia began following McClure and D'Amico's spending habits online beginning late last year, after receiving an anonymous tip they were allegedly spending the GoFundMe money. In just a few months, McClure posted pictures and videos of a New Year's Eve Bash in Las Vegas, helicopter rides, trips to New York with front row tickets to a Broadway show and shopping excursions.
Coffina said McClure and D'Amico squandered most of the $367,000 contributed and "hit the casinos hard." They also bought a BMW and high-end handbags, according to court records.
McClure is an administrative assistant with the state of New Jersey who makes $43,000 per year. D'Amico is a carpenter.
Coffina praised Bobbitt's military service in the United States Marine Corps but also said he was "fully complicit" in the scheme.
The prosecutor said the trio "hoodwinked a lot of people," but he encouraged the public to continue to give to those in need.