PHILADELPHIA — It was a feel-good story that got people to open their wallets and donate.
The premise of the story that went viral in 2017 was that New Jersey resident Kate McClure ran out of gas on Interstate 95 in Philadelphia and a homeless man, Johnny Bobbitt Jr., gave her his last $20 while she was stranded. In return, McClure and her boyfriend, Mark D’Amico, started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Bobbitt, saying they wanted to pay it forward to the good Samaritan and get him off the streets.
But the story wasn’t true, authorities said, as McClure and Bobbitt pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges.
“In reality, McClure never ran out of gas and Bobbitt never spent his last $20 for her,” according to a US Attorney’s Office press release. “D’Amico and McClure allegedly conspired to create the false story to obtain money from donors.”
McClure, 28, could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She will be sentenced on June 19.
Bobbitt, 36, could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. He will be sentenced at a later date.
CNN reached out to attorneys for McClure and Bobbitt for comment, but has not heard back.
D’Amico is not facing federal charges. But all three — McClure, D’Amico and Bobbitt — are facing local charges of second-degree theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft by deception.
Their original story made national headlines that brought attention to their crowdfunding that raised nearly $400,000.
McClure and her partner transferred the funds to their bank account and bought a BMW, expensive handbags and went on trips, including to casinos in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Nevada, according to court documents.
McClure transferred $25,000 from her bank account to Bobbitt’s in December 2017, federal prosecutors said. He received $75,000 in the campaign, according to Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina.
But their story began to fall apart after Bobbitt sued McClure and D’Amico, accusing them of withholding the money raised on his behalf.
That lawsuit invited a search warrant, a deposition and an investigation into their campaign, which uncovered the alleged conspiracy. GoFundMe has since made refunds to thousands of people who donated, thinking they were giving to Bobbitt.
In November, prosecutors alleged that it was a scam perpetrated by all three individuals.
“The paying-it-forward story that drove this fundraiser might seem too good to be true,” Coffina said then. “Unfortunately, it was. The entire campaign was predicated on a lie.”