The internet is full of opportunities to help out a stranger in need.
You can help spread the word for a good cause through your social media channels, amplifying someone's message. You can add your name to a petition demanding action on websites like Change.org. And if you're feeling especially generous, you can make a monetary donation to help get someone's project off the ground via sites like Kickstarter or just help bankroll their bills, medical or otherwise, during times of crisis on sites like GoFundMe. But what happens when that generosity is cruelly taken advantage of?
For some 14,000 unlucky good Samaritans who'd donated to what they believed to be a genuine good cause, helping out a homeless Marine veteran in Philadelphia, they're finding out that not all sob stories are to be taken at face value in a story that'll sadly probably make us all think twice before opening up our wallets to internet strangers in the future.
In November 2017, Kate McClure and her boyfriend Mark D'Amico set up a campaign on GoFundMe to help out homeless vet Johnny Bobbitt Jr. As their story went, McClure had been driving into Philly from New Jersey one night when she ran out of gas on the I-95 when she met Bobbitt, who "sits on the side of the road every day," she claimed in the campaign's initial post.
"He saw me pull over and knew something was wrong. He told me to get back in the car and lock the doors," she wrote. "A few minutes later, he comes back with a red gas can. Using his last 20 dollars to make sure I could get home safe. Johnny did not ask me for a dollar, and I couldn't repay him at that moment because I didn't have any cash, but I have been stopping by his spot for the past few weeks."
She eventually repaid him, she claimed, continuing to give him a few dollars and food and water whenever she would see him. But his "good heart" encouraged her to do more for him than just throw a couple bucks his way every now and then. So, she set out to raise money for him. "With the money, I would like to get him first and last month's rent at an apartment, a reliable vehicle, and 4-6 months worth of expenses," she wrote. "Truly believe that all Johnny needs is one little break. Hopefully with your help I can be the one to give it to him."
Immediately, donations began pouring in. By the campaign's conclusion on December 11, 14,347 donors had raises $402,706 to help Bobbitt, far surpassing the initial goal of $10,000, making the trio involved in the heartwarming tale into media sensations, with appearances made on Good Morning America and the BBC while the couple negotiated a book deal.
Meanwhile, two trust funds and a bank account had allegedly been set up for Bobbit, McClure told donors through an update on the GoFundMe page. One fund would give him the ability to collect a small salary each month, while the other would work as a retirement fund, invested by a financial planner. "So when the time comes, he can live his retirement dream of owning a piece of land and a cabin in the country," she wrote.
All's well that ends well, right? Not exactly.
By August of this year, relations between the couple and Bobbitt had soured considerably, with the vet wondering exactly what was going on with all the money that had been donated to him. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, he revealed that he was once again homeless and abusing drugs, begging for money on the street. The home donors had been assured was being purchased for Bobbitt had become a camper that he'd lived in until June on land McClure's family owns in Burlington County, New Jersey, near the small house the couple shares. The used SUV he was given had broken down. And questions arose over how, exactly, McClure and D'Amico were funding things like the new BMW she was driving and trips to California, Florida and Las Vegas, as well as a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, not to mention how much D'Amico had spent gambling.
A he said-they said situation soon erupted, with the couple claiming Bobbitt had been given $25,000, which he burned through in less than two weeks, and that he stole from them and pawned some of their possessions for cash to procure drugs. Cagey in what they would reveal, D'Amico did admit that there were no trusts, as McClure had previously claimed, and that the remaining $200,000 was in a savings account that he would make available to Bobbitt once he got a job and could prove he was drug-free. Despite refusing to produce financial statements or provide any sort of accounting of their spending, they told the Inquirer that they spent a bulk of the money on the hotel that Bobbitt stayed in until they bought him the camper and SUV, along with a television, laptop, two cellphones, food and clothing. (GoFundMe also kept $30,000 as their standard fee.)
"Giving him all that money, it's never going to happen. I'll burn it in front of him," D'Amico said, adding that giving the money to a drug addict would be like "giving him a loaded gun."
As for the car and vacations, D'Amico alleged the couple used their own money. The California trip, they claimed, was paid for by The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which had invited them on to discuss the GoFundMe campaign. D'Amico also confirmed that he'd used $500 of the donations to gamble because he didn't have his SugarHouse Casino card on one evening, but he'd been quick to repay it with his winnings, he claimed.
By this time, homeless advocates had put Bobbitt in touch with pro bono lawyers Jacqueline Promislo and Chris Fallon who had agreed to represent the seemingly duped veteran as he investigated his options. "I think he is just a genuine, sincere person who has been the victim of so many bad circumstances," Promislo told the Inquirer. "We want to make sure he has the opportunity to benefit from the incredible generosity of people."
In response to allegations that Bobbitt was their victim, the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office Financial Crimes Unit opened an investigation into the couple and raided their home in September, seizing bank statements and over 60,000 text messages. And here's where things get interesting.
A text message McClure sent to a friend mere hours after the campaign went live proved that the whole story was a fabrication, Burlington County prosecutor Scott A. Coffina claimed at a news conference last week. "OK, so wait, the gas part is completely made up but the guy isn't," McClure wrote. "I had to make something up so people will feel bad."
Further text messages allegedly revealed that McClure and D'Amico had communicated about Bobbitt weeks prior to the night she claimed he came to her rescue, discussing ways to help him out, and that their families were aware of the way they'd duped the public. "My mother just called me and said that people go to jail for scamming others out of money. So there's that," McClure said in one text to a friend, according to the New York Post. "That's what my own mother thinks of me."
By March, the friend was warning McClure to "get rid" of Bobbit and make a donation to "get the public off your back." "He could out you," the friend added.
McClure's response? "I'll be keeping the rest of the money, f--k you very much."
Though, even if she'd wanted to do the right thing, it was already too late as a text to D'Amico earlier that month showed McClure lamenting that she "can't believe we have less than 10k left." D'Amico remained unfazed, seemingly confident that the book deal would net them even more cash than the donations did.
Ultimately, it was their greed that likely did them in, Coffina said in his press conference, noting that if Bobbitt hadn't sued the couple, "there's a good chance" the entire ruse would've never been uncovered. As investigators were closing in on them, D'Amico and McClure began turning on one another in their text messages. "Twenty thousand [dollars], BMW. Five thousand, Disney [World and Land trips]. Ten thousand in bags. We both went to Vegas, right?" D'Amico wrote her. "Like you act like you didn't spend a dollar."
"I wish that you never updated the GoFundMe. Like we shoulda just let it go and not f--king kept people informed," she replied the next day. They are no longer together.
To add another wrinkle to this sordid tale, Bobbit's lawsuit also increased the scrutiny surrounding him, as well. And as investigators dug into his past, they found a 2012 Facebook post wherein he allegedly posted a story similar to the one McClure had made up on the GoFundMe page. About his time living in North Carolina, he wrote, "So this girl runs out of gas and has a flat tire at the same time in front of Wal-Mart and is blocking traffic. "So I run to the gas station and hen change her tire. I spent the only cash I had for supper but at least she can get her little children home safe."
Was it a good deed that inspired McClure's tale five years later or an early test run of the lie? Officials can't say for sure, but either way, "I don't think that's a coincidence," Coffina said.
"[Bobbitt] deserves our appreciation for his willingness to serve our country as a United States Marine and he has our sympathy and concern for the homelessness that he's experienced, as well as his publicized struggle with addiction," the prosecutor added. "But it is imperative to keep in mind that he was fully complicit in the scheme to defraud contributors."
On Wednesday, Nov. 14, D'Amico and McClure surrendered to authorities in Burlington County, while Bobbitt was arrested police in Philadelphia. He is expected to be extradited to New Jersey. All three face charges of theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft by deception, which is punishable by five to 10 years in prison.
Despite the narrative told by the text messages obtained by prosecutors, McClure's lawyer James Gerrow has begun publicly floating a defense that she was merely an unwitting accomplice in D'Amico's scheme. In an appearance on Good Morning America on Monday, the attorney claimed, "Kate thought she was helping a veteran who was homeless. Mr. D'Amico was the one behind this and he was calling all the shots...She didn't understand or appreciate the fact that this may very well be a crime."
In a statement obtained by E! News, Gerrow said, "I'm confident that in the end the evidence will reveal that Kate had only the best intentions. She was used by Mr. D'Amico and Mr Bobbitt and she thought throughout that this money was going to a homeless veteran. She was unaware that they had concocted this scheme. It wasn't until September when meeting with prosecutors that she came to realize that she had been used by both of them."
An attorney for D'Amico told NBC News that he was surprised by the defense. "I don't know how Kate is playing the victim now. I will be curious to see how this defense plays out for her in court," he said.
As for GoFundMe, they're taking steps to reimburse all the actual good Samaritans who got swindled on their website. "All donors who contributed to this GoFundMe campaign will receive a full refund. 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," the company said in a statement released to E! News, adding they were fully cooperating and assisting law enforcement officials to recover every dollar withdrawn by McClure and D'Amico.
"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," the statement continued. "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."
For some potential donors, however—and certainly for the 14,000 caught up in this mess—it might be too little too late. And sadly, the only people who'll likely find themselves hurt by this in the future are folks truly in need, folks who just might find that there are less people willing to lend a helping hand than ever before.