MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. -- Mark D'Amico, the New Jersey man charged in a GoFundMe scam that relied on a fake Good Samaritan story that raised more than $400,000 for homeless veteran Johnny Bobbitt Jr., pleaded guilty Friday in Burlington County Superior Court to a second-degree-felony charge of misapplication of entrusted property.
Under the agreement, he faces a five-year prison sentence, but could apply to an intensive-probation program after serving seven months in custody.
D'Amico's sentence on the state charge is deferred until the outcome of a federal case in which he is charged with one count each of conspiring to commit wire fraud and conspiring to commit money laundering. Burlington County Judge Terrence Cook on Friday tentatively set April 24 for D'Amico's sentencing on the state charge.
Defense attorney Mark Davis, of Hamilton, N.J., told reporters after the surprise plea hearing that D'Amico was not pleading guilty to conspiring with Katelyn McClure, his former girlfriend, to set up the GoFundMe account and that D'Amico was not the mastermind behind the scam. As part of the plea agreement with prosecutors, other charges including conspiracy and theft were withdrawn.
"What he pled guilty to today was only with respect to what he did," Davis told reporters. The lawyer contended that unlike McClure and Bobbitt, D'Amico did not defraud any of the more than 14,320 donors who contributed to the GoFundMe campaign.
"They pled guilty to that," Davis said of McClure and Bobbitt. "We did not plead guilty to that."
The charge to which D'Amico pleaded guilty, Davis said, was "misapplying funds" that D'Amico "was holding for Bobbitt."
D'Amico, 40, of Burlington County, arrived at the Mount Holly courthouse Friday dressed in a long-sleeve green shirt, black vest jacket and ripped blue jeans. He is not in custody and said little during the brief hearing except to agree with his lawyer and the judge that he was pleading guilty.
He agreed in court that he took more than $75,000 designated for Bobbitt's benefit and unlawfully used it for his own personal gain.
Davis explained to reporters afterward that the in-excess-of-$75,000 amount was language "required by statute for the judge to accept the plea."
In reality, D'Amico, McClure and Bobbitt together are responsible to repay GoFundMe the $402,706 raised in the scam. Superior Court has not yet determined how much each of the three must pay.
Assistant Burlington County Prosecutor Andrew McDonnell told the judge that D'Amico's state sentence would run concurrent to whatever sentence he may receive in his federal case. He also said the state was taking no position on D'Amico's applying to the intensive-supervision probation program, which could get him released early from prison as part of his five-year state prison sentence.
D'Amico, however, faces a maximum potential sentence in federal court of 30 years in prison on the two federal charges. A trial date in federal court in Camden has not been set.
After Friday's plea, D'Amico declined to comment on his case to reporters outside the courthouse.
McClure, 29, of Burlington County, and Bobbitt, 36, of Philadelphia, had pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in federal court in March. They await sentencing.
Bobbitt had pleaded guilty in March in Burlington County Superior Court to conspiracy to commit theft by deception. He was sentenced to five years' probation and was ordered to enroll in a drug-rehabilitation program.
McClure had pleaded guilty in Burlington County Superior Court in April to theft by deception. She had agreed to testify against D'Amico if his case had gone to trial. As part of her agreement, she could be sentenced to a potential four-year state prison term.
She admitted to authorities that she and D'Amico had befriended Bobbitt outside a Philadelphia casino in 2017 and made up the story -- which went viral -- that Bobbitt had offered her his last $20 when she ran out of gas off I-95 in Philadelphia on a cold October night in 2017.
At the time, D'Amico, a carpenter, and McClure, a secretary for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, lived together in Bordentown. Authorities have contended that in November 2017, the then-couple created the GoFundMe page titled "Paying it forward" with the fake tale about Bobbitt helping McClure.
Donors around the world contributed to the campaign to help get Bobbitt, a Marine veteran, off the streets. The three appeared on national television to promote the campaign.
In reality, authorities have said, McClure was not stranded, Bobbitt did not buy gas for her, and a substantial amount of the money raised in the online campaign was used by McClure and D'Amico for their personal spending and not to help Bobbitt.
McClure said during her state court plea that she and D'Amico spent much of the money on vacations, casino gambling, a BMW, two trucks, designer handbags, and other purchases.
GoFundMe has agreed to reimburse all of the donors.
Within a few months of the campaign's creation, all of the donated funds had been spent. Once Bobbitt realized the money had been squandered, he took civil action against D'Amico and McClure. He alleged in August 2018 through his attorneys that he had only received about $75,000 of the funds raised on his behalf.
Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina took note Friday of the timing of the guilty plea coming during the holiday season.
"Today's proceeding presents an opportunity to remind the public during the holidays to be cautious when considering making a charitable contribution," Coffina said in a statement. "Do your research, and make sure you are donating to a worthwhile cause."
This article was written by Julie Shaw from The Philadelphia Inquirer and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.