A New Jersey veteran was sentenced Monday to three years' probation for his part in swindling 14,000 GoFundMe donors in 2017.
The story of Johnny Bobbitt, 39, originally gained national attention as a random act of feel-good kindness, but quickly unraveled into a tangled scam that bilked patrons out of more than $400,000.
Bobbitt offered co-defendant Kate McClure, 32, his last $20 after she ran out of gas on I-95, offering to fill up a can at a nearby gas station -- or so McClure's story went. She even snapped a picture to mark the alleged act of kindness.
"Grateful, but without a dollar to repay him," a 2017 NJ.com story read, "McClure promised she would come back with something," adding she claimed to periodically stop along the highway to drop off cash, food and promises to raise money for Bobbitt's plight.
But their story was fake. Bobbitt was indeed without housing and McClure did meet the veteran on the side of the road, but the rest of the account was fabricated and served as the basis of a GoFundMe campaign that McClure and her then boyfriend, Mark D'Amico, 43, concocted, with Bobbitt as the centerpiece. Originally, they hoped only to pilfer $10,000 from unwitting donors lured by their tall tale, but the story took off.
"In reality, McClure never ran out of gas and Bobbitt never spent his last $20 for her," a Justice Department press release said Monday, referring to Bobbitt as a "homeless veteran." "D'Amico and McClure allegedly conspired to create the false story to obtain money from donors."
Prosecutors in 2018 said that, less than an hour after the GoFundMe was launched, McClure texted a friend about the lie that eventually led to her and her boyfriend's incarceration.
"Ok so wait the gas part is completely made up, but the guy isn't," she said, according to New Jersey prosecutor Scott A. Coffina. "I had to make something up to make people feel bad."
"So shush about the made up stuff," she reportedly added.
It appears that Bobbitt was not in on the scam from the outset, only learning about the campaign and false gas story when the donations hit $1,500 in mid-November, according to the DoJ. But he then reportedly went along with the scam, leading him to be charged in 2018 and plead guilty the next year for conspiracy to commit money laundering.
"The story was quickly picked up by local and national media outlets, went viral and raised approximately $400,000 from more than 14,000 donors in less than three weeks," the release added. The scheme, which was titled "Paying it Forward" on the GoFundMe page, lasted for more than a year, ending around the time Bobbitt sued the couple. He claimed that they withheld or spent part of the plunder on "gambling, vacations, a BMW automobile, clothing, expensive handbags and other personal items and expenses," according to the Justice Department.
GoFundMe said it reimbursed everyone who donated to the scheme in 2018.
D'Amico and McClure were sentenced earlier this year to 27 and 12 months in prison, respectively. Bobbitt avoided jail time and instead was sentenced Monday to probation and having to pay back $25,000 -- the amount that D'Amico and McClure deposited into the bank account they set up for him.
According to D'Amico's indictment, McClure posted a message to donors in a 2017 funding campaign update: "I've seen some things about mark [sic] or I deciding where this 'extra' money will go. That couldn't be further from the truth. ... It will be [Bobbitt's] decision and his decision only on what organizations and or private parties he decides to help!!"
But that sentiment seemed to reverse as the couple began living lavishly, according to prosecutors.
D'Amico attempted to justify withholding the money from the veteran because of Bobbitt's purported struggle with drug addiction, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018 that he'd rather "burn it in front of him" and that giving him the money would be like "giving him a loaded gun." Though the couple told the paper that they had paid for a hotel room, electronics, food, clothing and eventually a camper for the veteran, they declined to provide receipts.
Bobbitt denied allegations that he spent the deposited $25,000 in just two weeks and said the couple's claims of spending money on him were false, but did concede to the paper that he had used some of the money on opiates and medication to help treat his addiction.
Bobbitt's time in the Marine Corps was short, according to records provided by the service to Military.com. He served from 2002 to 2004 as an ammunition technician, leaving the military at the rank of private after an apparent tumultuous discharge from the Corps.
"Bobbitt's premature discharge and his rank at time of separation are indicative of the fact that the character of his service was incongruent with Marine Corps' expectations and standards," a service spokesperson told Military.com on Tuesday. "Due to the associated administrative processes, further details are not releasable."
Neither Bobbitt's listed attorney nor the New Jersey DOJ office were reachable before publication.
"I'm not going to lie and say I wasn't thrilled about the money," Bobbitt told the Inquirer. "Who wouldn't be?"
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.