After a New Jer­sey cou­ple make head­lines with a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign for a lo­cal home­less man they say helped them, au­thor­i­ties charge all three with in­vent­ing the story—for cash

People (USA) - - CONTENTS - By ADAM CARL­SON Re­port­ing by Char Adams and Caitlin Keat­ing

It had all the mak­ings of the feel-good story of the year.kate Mcclure said that in Oc­to­ber 2017 she found her­self stranded and out of gas while driv­ing to Philadel­phia. Stuck on the side of the in­ter­state, she claimed she made it to safety with help from a home­less man named Johnny Bob­bitt Jr., who spent his last $20 buy­ing gas for her car. Mcclure and her boyfriend Mark D’am­ico were so moved by Bob­bitt’s gen­eros­ity that they set up a “Pay­ing It For­ward” cam­paign for him on Go­fundme, the crowd­fund­ing web­site. The cam­paign went vi­ral, and within weeks 14,000 peo­ple—touched by Bob­bitt’s ap­par­ent act of kind­ness—had do­nated more than $402,000.

If it all seemed too good to be true, that’s be­cause, ac­cord­ing to pros­e­cu­tors, it was. In Septem­ber trou­bling ques­tions about where and how the Go­fundme money had been spent prompted a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion that ex­posed the whole story as a hoax. Last week New Jer­sey au­thor­i­ties charged D’am­ico, Mcclure and Bob­bitt with se­cond-de­gree theft by de­cep­tion and con­spir­acy, pun­ish­able by up to 10 years in prison. “The en­tire cam­paign was pred­i­cated on a lie,” pros­e­cu­tor Scott Coffina told re­porters. “They put out a story that hood­winked an aw­ful lot of peo­ple.” Ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, the trio cooked up the scheme after first meet­ing in the fall of 2017 near a Philadel­phia casino where the 39-year-old D’am­ico, a Florence, N.j.-based con­trac­tor, and Mcclure, 28, a state em­ployee, were reg­u­lars. (Bob­bitt, a 35-year-old Ma­rine Corps vet­eran who’d been strug­gling with drug ad­dic­tion and liv­ing on the streets since 2016, was al­ready on the cou­ple’s radar


and had once claimed to have helped a stranded mo­torist.) The trio con­cocted their story from there. By March roughly $367,000 had been trans­ferred from Go­fundme to Mcclure’s bank ac­count— $75,000 of which Bob­bitt said was paid to him in pe­ri­odic amounts. D’am­ico and Mcclure al­legedly burned through the rest on trips and lux­ury items, in­clud­ing a $20,700 Las Ve­gas va­ca­tion, a $24,400 BMW and $11,400 worth of de­signer hand­bags. The cou­ple also spent money putting Bob­bitt up in a ho­tel and buy­ing him an RV camper. Within weeks after the funds trans­fer, Mcclure’s ac­count was empty, and by Au­gust Bob­bitt had spent all of his money too and was back liv­ing on the streets. An­gry and des­per­ate, Bob­bitt sued D’am­ico and Mcclure for fraud, forc­ing them to ad­mit in court that the cash was gone—and the jig was up. (Peo­ple’s re­quests for com­ment were not re­turned.)

In the mean­time Go­fundme has pledged to fully re­fund ev­ery donor, call­ing the al­leged fraud “unac­cept­able.” Added pros­e­cu­tor Coffina: “A case like this can make gen­er­ous peo­ple skep­ti­cal and . . . hes­i­tant to help some­one else in need; I urge [ev­ery­one] not to let that hap­pen.”

Johnny Bob­bitt Jr. Mark D’am­ico Kate­lyn Mcclure

In Fe­bru­ary the cou­ple pur­chased a 2015 BMW with fund-raiser pro­ceeds.

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