GoFundMe has refunded people who donated to a viral campaign ostensibly intended to benefit a Philadelphia homeless man and that authorities now allege was an elaborate scam, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
The incident began after a New Jersey couple, Mark D’Amico and Kate McClure, claimed that a homeless man, Johnny Bobbitt Jr., came to McClure’s aid and helped her get gas with his last $20 when her car broke down off a Philadelphia interstate. Initially posted to GoFundMe last year, the so-called “Paying it Forward” campaign claimed its goal of $10,000 would be used to secure an apartment for Bobbitt, as well as a car and up to six months’ worth of living expenses. The campaign ultimately raised more than $400,000, in part thanks to a high-profile media tour.
In an updated post, the campaign also claimed that in addition to creating a bank account for Bobbitt, two trusts would be established, “one essentially giving him the ability to collect a small ‘salary’ each year and another retirement trust which will be wisely invested by a financial planner which he will have access to in a time frame he feels comfortable with so when the time comes he can live his retirement dream of owning a piece of land and a cabin in the country.”
The story took a dark turn after Bobbitt claimed that he had yet to receive the majority of funds and that the lofty objectives outlined by the campaign had not been delivered on; Bobbitt claimed he received only about $75,000. Bobbitt took legal action, and a judge ordered the couple to fork over the donation money before it was revealed in September that the money was gone. An ensuing investigation proved that the story was not what it seemed, and authorities later claimed the couple and Bobbitt had fabricated the story.
Prosecutors with the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office in New Jersey announced formal charges of second-degree theft by deception and second-degree conspiracy against the three in November. While authorities said they believe that Bobbitt was actually homeless, Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina said in a statement at the time that the entire fundraising effort was founded on a lie.
“Less than an hour after the GoFundMe campaign went live, McClure, in a text exchange with a friend, stated that the story about Bobbitt assisting her was ‘completely made up,’” Coffina said. “She did not run out of gas on an I-95 off-ramp, and he did not spend his last $20 to help her. Rather, D’Amico, McClure and Bobbitt conspired to fabricate and promote a feel-good story that would compel donors to contribute to their case.”
A spokesperson for GoFundMe, Bobby Whithorne, said Tuesday the company had refunded all donors to the campaign, as it had initially promised after the campaign was alleged to be a scam.