Janine McClenny was touched when the story of a homeless man who gave the last of his money to a young woman stranded on the interstate came across her newsfeed.
“It tugged at my heartstrings,” McClenny told CNN.
Fortunately for everyone moved by the story, the woman and her boyfriend – Kate McClure and Mark D’Amico – started a GoFundMe campaign to repay Johnny Bobbitt Jr. many times over.
He gave $20 to the stranded woman.
McClenny gave $20 to him.
But McClenny and others were the victims of a heartwarming tale predicated on a lie, according to Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina.
She’s one of 14,000 donors GoFundMe now has to refund after the couple and Bobbitt were charged with second-degree theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft by deception, according to Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina.
“The story now in hindsight sounds a little unbelievable,” McClenny said. “I think I should have thought harder before I decided to give people some of my money.”
How did it all fall apart?
All it took was a picture and a good story.
McClure and D’Amico were unable to pay their bills and had mounting debt, their texts show.
Then, they met a veteran, Bobbitt Jr., on an off-ramp, Coffina said.
They went back a month later to get a picture with Bobbitt, who already had what Coffina called a story “remarkably similar” to the one the three would peddle on his Facebook page.
“Okay so wait the gas part is completely made up, but the guy isn’t. I had to make something up to make people feel bad,” McClure told a friend in one of the more than 67,000 text messages investigators reviewed.
And, it seems, people did feel bad. The campaign brought in more than $400,000 in donations. After fees, the proceeds of the campaign netted about $367,000, all deposited into McClure’s accounts, Coffina said.
And they might have gotten away with it, too, Coffina said, had they not gone to court.
Bobbitt sued the couple in August, claiming he did not get his fair share and that the money he was promised had disappeared.
That lawsuit invited a search warrant, a deposition and an investigation into their campaign, which uncovered the conspiracy and the three were taken into custody.
What happens next?
This kind of misuse is extremely rare, GoFundMe said in a statement. But, the company says they are “fully cooperating” with law enforcement and has confirmed that donors will receive a refund.
McClenny said she now feels foolish for donating, but that the revelation hasn’t totally dissuaded her from giving to charity.
“If I come across something that I think it’s worthy then I might donate,” she said. “It may change the way I donate in the future… but I think that GoFundMe is still very important to help people.”
CNN’s Dakin Andone contributed to this report.