Homeless man, couple who gained fame through GoFundMe campaign fabricated story to defraud contributors, prosecutor says

Kristine Solomon
Style and Beauty Writer
Johnny Bobbitt stands with his would-be benefactors  Kate McClure and Mark D’Amico before their GoFundMe campaign turned into a saga of greed and deceit. (Photo: NBC News)

A New Jersey couple who became famous for raising $400,000 on GoFundMe for a homeless Good Samaritan — and the homeless man himself — could be heading to prison soon. The three have been charged with second-degree crimes for fabricating the entire story to scam money out of unsuspecting online donors, Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina said at a press conference on Thursday.

Coffina recounted the details of the ruse, which started in November 2017 when Kate McClure claimed her car ran out of gas on Interstate 95 in Philadelphia. That’s when she said the homeless man, Johnny Bobbitt, approached her. After learning she was stranded and had no cash, she claimed he told her to wait inside the car with the doors locked, then used his last $20 to go buy her a can of gas.  

Moved by Bobbitt’s kind gesture, according to McClure’s tale, she and her boyfriend, Mark D’Amico, returned to Philadelphia a few days later to check on Bobbit and buy him food and clothing, according to local Philadelphia station WPVI-TV. The couple said they got to know the man and learned that he was a down-on-his-luck veteran. So they decided to launch a GoFundMe page, which they titled Paying It Forward, to raise money for a car, first and last month’s rent on an apartment, and four to six months’ worth of expenses for Bobbitt. McClure wrote. They set a goal of $10,000 but earned $401,921 by the time Bobbitt made the call to cap the fundraising. 

But Coffina told reporters “the entire campaign was predicated on a lie.” Instead, investigators discovered that McClure and D’Amico had met Bobbitt during one of their frequent nights out gambling. “[Bobbitt] used to hang out near this off ramp, which happens to be near SugarHouse Casino [in Philadelphia]. They ran into him on one of their trips there, befriended him, gave him money for coffee and food, and it grew from there,” Coffina said.

The prosecutor said the trio might not ever have been busted had McClure and D’Amico evenly split the $367,000 they netted after GoFundMe took its portion. Instead, they relinquished only $75,000 in cash, goods and services — including a pickup truck and a camper in their own names — and used the rest to finance a lavish new lifestyle that included vacations, shopping sprees and a BMW — extravagances they flaunted all over social media.

“[Bobbitt] tells me they had a Louis Vuitton bag and Chanel sunglasses, a new iPhone 10,” said Philadelphia lawyer Jacqueline Promislo, who has represented Bobbitt, to WPVI-TV. Bobbitt says he was at the mercy of McClure and D’Amico, who doled out the money to him bit by bit. “I had to ask them for everything. In the beginning it was a joke. They were like my parents. But the joke stops being funny after a while.”

In September, Bobbitt’s attorneys said all of the money had “disappeared,” and Bobbitt had ended up back on the streets — so he decided to sue the couple for fraud. McClure and D’Amico denied any wrongdoing and claimed they had been parceling out the money because they were afraid Bobbitt would waste it all on drugs. Ultimately, a court ordered that the couple turn over the remainder of the fortune to Bobbitt — but by September they still had not complied, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Coffina confirmed that it was this civil litigation that led investigators to dig deeper into “certain things that didn’t ring true to us.” Their investigation ultimately led them to the smoking gun: a text exchange between McClure and a friend in which she admitted outright that the story was a lie. “Ok so the gas part is completely made up but the guy isn’t,” she wrote to her friend, saying she had to make up some kind of scenario to tug at people’s heartstrings and get them to donate, according to Coffina.

In total, investigators discovered about 60,000 damning texts, including a conversation in which the couple were discussing “their financial woes, inability to pay bills and mounting debts,” said Coffina. In one March 2018 exchange, McClure was complaining to D’Amico that the GoFundMe money was running out — Coffina confirmed the couple had “squandered the vast majority” of the money — but D’Amico assured her that the payout they’d get for a future book deal would dwarf what they made through the campaign. Coffina said that when Bobbitt sued them, D’Amico even saw an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade: They’d just call their book No Good Deed.

But instead, the lawsuit — and the couple’s greed — sealed their fate. All three are now facing charges of second-degree theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft by deception. Coffina conceded that it’s possible Bobbitt may have been an “easy target” who didn’t understand the extent of what he was getting himself into but that he was complicit in the scheme. McClure and D’Amico are out on bond and have a court date of Dec. 24. Bobbit is in custody in Philadelphia while he awaits an extradition date. If convicted, they could each face five to 10 years in prison. 

In September, GoFundMe stepped in and promised Bobbitt would receive the balance of the funds the couple withheld from him. But now the company has committed to issuing refunds to all of the people who made donations to the campaign. GoFundMe issued a statement to Yahoo Lifestyle that read: “GoFundMe always fully protects donors, which is why we have a comprehensive refund policy in place. GoFundMe will process all refunds in the coming days. While this type of behavior by an individual is extremely rare, it’s unacceptable and clearly it has consequences. Committing fraud, whether it takes place on- or offline is against the law. We are fully cooperating and assisting law enforcement officials to recover every dollar withdrawn by Ms. McClure and Mr. D’Amico.”

GoFundMe even addressed potential concerns of future donors, adding, “Finally, it’s important to understand that misuse is very rare on our platform. Campaigns with misuse make up less than one-tenth of one percent of all campaigns. We have a zero-tolerance policy for fraudulent behavior. If fraud occurs, donors get refunded, and we work with law enforcement officials to recover the money. One fraudulent campaign is one too many, but when it does take place, we take action to protect donors.” It also provided a website for more information about the guarantee.

Coffina confirmed that the lion’s share of the GoFundMe fortune was actually gambled away, with $20,000 specifically going toward casino play and about $89,000 in cash withdrawals around the casino. Meanwhile, the clothing, handbags, jewelry and cars that were seized from the couple will prompt a forfeiture process, the prosecutor said. The forfeiture money will go back into fighting future crimes.

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