Couple and homeless man behind viral GoFundMe campaign are charged with conspiracy

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – The tale of the New Jersey couple who wanted to help out a homeless man by starting a GoFundMe campaign has taken another turn.

The couple, Mark D’Amico and Kate McClure, and the man, Johnny Bobbitt Jr, are all being charged with second-degree conspiracy and theft by deception, the prosecutor for Burlington County, New Jersey, said on Thursday (Nov 15).

They face five to 10 years in prison if found guilty, prosecutor Scott Coffina said at a news conference on Thursday.

“The entire campaign was predicated on a lie,” Mr Coffina said. “They conspired to pass off a fake feel-good story that would compel donors to contribute to their cause; it worked in a very big way, but it was fictitious and illegal.”

D’Amico and McClure turned themselves in to officials on Wednesday. They were later released and were expected to be back in court on Christmas Eve. Bobbitt was arrested in Philadelphia and was being extradited to New Jersey.

The couple started a GoFundMe campaign for Bobbitt in 2017. McClure claimed she had been out of gas and money when Bobbitt, who was homeless at the time, offered her his last US$20 (S$27.51) so that she could get home.

The couple took a photo of Bobbitt, a veteran, when they said they returned to repay him.

The GoFundMe campaign went viral; 14,347 people donated US$402,706 for Bobbitt. The heartwarming story was widely covered by news organisations.

Officials pored over more than 60,000 text messages sent by McClure and D’Amico. An hour after the campaign went live, McClure sent a text message to a friend admitting that the entire story was untrue, Mr Coffina said.

“OK, so wait, the gas part is completely made up but the guy isn’t,” read the text message Ms McClure sent.

“I had to make something up so people will feel bad,” she added.

After administrative fees charged by GoFundMe, the couple netted US$367,108. All of the money was spent, according to Mr Coffina. He said US$89,000 was withdrawn in or around casinos and more than US$20,000 was spent in casino play.

Officials also seized a car, jewellery and luxury handbags from the home of McClure and D’Amico during a raid in September.

In March, McClure sent a text message to D’Amico lamenting that they had less than US$10,000 left from donors, officials said.

A few months later, Bobbitt sued McClure and D’Amico, claiming that the couple had used the donations for themselves.

“Maybe he just didn’t appreciate that the lawsuit will bring out this information,” Mr Coffina said.

Officials also found that in 2012, Bobbitt posted a similar story to his Facebook page, saying he had spent his supper money to help a woman. That story did not gain nearly as much traction as the tale about the gas money.

Mr Coffina believes the three people met near an underpass where Bobbitt hung out that was close to the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia, which D’Amico and McClure frequented.

Lawyers for D’Amico and McClure declined to comment. Lawyers for Bobbitt did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

GoFundMe said it would process all refunds to donors in the coming days.

“While this type of behaviour by an individual is extremely rare, it’s unacceptable and clearly it has consequences,” a spokesman for GoFundMe said in a statement.

Mr Coffina said the case “could damage the psyche of the public.”

“I urge you not to let that happen,” he said. “Use caution and common sense when donating.”

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