In the fall of 2017, 28-year-old Kate McClure praised Johnny Bobbitt, a 35-year-old homeless veteran who she says spent his last $20 to help her when her car ran out of gas in Philadelphia. Moved by the story, some 14,000 donors gave over $400,000 to rescue the man from homelessness.
As it turns out, it was all a lie.
“The ‘pay it forward’ story that drove this fundraiser might seem too good to be true. Unfortunately it was,” Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina said during a news conference on Thursday, adding that the trio “hoodwinked” the donors. “The entire campaign was predicated on a lie.”
McClure did not run out of gas on a Philadelphia ramp that night and Bobbitt did not spend his last $20 to help her. According to Coffina, McClure texted a friend right after setting up the GoFundMe, writing, “The gas part is completely made up, but the guy isn’t. I had to make something up to make people feel bad.”
In reality, the group initially met at an off-ramp near a casino in Philadelphia they frequented a month before they launched their campaign.
“The evidence developed over the course of this investigation demonstrates that D’Amico and McClure had known Bobbitt for at least a month or more prior to the date of the GoFundMe ‘Paying it Forward’ campaign’s launch, as they had met him on their frequent trips to a local gambling casino,” according to court documents obtained by PEOPLE.
The heartwarming tale convinced thousands of people to donate to the group’s GoFundMe to get Bobbitt off the streets.
On Thursday, Coffina announced that the trio have all been charged with second-degree theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft by deception. D’Amico and McClure turned themselves in to the prosecutor’s office on Wednesday and Bobbitt was taken into custody in Philadelphia, he said.
The couple’s attorney, Ernie Badway, declined to comment.
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Prosecutors said Bobbitt, McClure and D’Amico conspired to make up the phony story, and carried out their plan — landing themselves $402,706 in GoFundMe donations.
Their plan worked. After fees, donations amounted to more than $367,000, all of which was deposited into D’Amico’s accounts. The couple gave Bobbitt $75,000 of the money, according to Coffina.
“But he wanted his fair share of the take,” the prosecutor added.
So, Bobbitt accused the couple of withholding the money, with his attorneys filing a civil suit in August on his behalf in an attempt to get the remaining funds. But by then the money was long gone. Coffina said on Thursday that D’Amico and McClure had “squandered” the money by mid-March — about five months after setting up the GoFundMe.
Coffina said the trio would have likely gotten away with their scam had Bobbitt not wanted more money.
As the funds dwindled, D’Amico boasted about a book deal the couple had been pursuing. They planned to call it No Good Deed. The couple was even unfazed by Bobbitt’s efforts, planning to move forward with their book plan despite his accusations.
“[Bobbitt] deserves our appreciate for his willingness to serve our country as a United States Marine and he has our sympathy and concern for the homelessness he has experienced as well as his publicized struggle with addiction,” Coffina said.
RELATED: Woman Raises Over $365,000 for Homeless Vet Who Gave Her His ‘Last $20’ When She Was Left Stranded
“But it is imperative to keep in mind that he was fully complicit with this scheme to defraud contributors, promoting the campaign in multiple media appearances and posing with D’Amico and McClure for a Philadelphia Inquirer story in front of a gas station that he did not buy gas from.”
An attorney for Bobbitt did not immediately respond to a request for comment from PEOPLE.
Although Coffina said the plan was a group effort, he mentioned that Bobbitt shared a “remarkably similar” story on his Facebook account. In the alleged post, Bobbitt said he “spent his supper money” to help her fix a flat tire.
That, Coffina said, is likely the story the trio worked from to concoct their plan.
This is the latest twist in what began as a feel-good story. But Coffina said GoFundMe officials are working with authorities to remedy the “fictitious, illegal” situation.
“GoFundMe has informed me that in light of the charges announced today, it will be providing a full refund to all donors of the ‘Pay It Forward’ campaign,” Coffina said.
GoFundMe officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment from PEOPLE.
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