NEW YORK • The tale of the New Jersey couple who wanted to help a homeless man by starting a GoFundMe campaign has taken another turn.
The couple, Mark D'Amico and Kate McClure, and the man, Johnny Bobbitt Jr, are all being charged with second-degree conspiracy and theft by deception, the prosecutor for Burlington County, New Jersey, said on Thursday.
They could be jailed for five to 10 years if found guilty, said prosecutor Scott Coffina, adding: "The entire campaign was predicated on a lie. They conspired to pass off a fake feel-good story that would compel donors to contribute to their cause; it worked in a very big way but it was fictitious and illegal."
D'Amico and McClure turned themselves in on Wednesday. They were later released and are expected to be back in court on Christmas Eve.
Bobbitt was arrested in Philadelphia and was being extradited to New Jersey. The couple started a GoFundMe campaign for Bobbitt last year. McClure claimed she had been out of petrol and money when Bobbitt, who was homeless, offered her his last US$20 (S$27) so that she could get home.
The couple took a photo of Bobbitt, a veteran, when they said they returned to repay him.
The GoFundMe campaign went viral; 14,347 people donated US$402,706 for Bobbitt. The heartwarming story was widely covered by news organisations.
Officials pored over more than 60,000 text messages sent by McClure and D'Amico.
An hour after the campaign went live, McClure sent a text message to a friend admitting that the entire story was untrue, Mr Coffina said.
"OK, so wait, the (petrol) part is completely made up but the guy isn't," read the message McClure sent. "I had to make something up so people will feel bad," she added.
After administrative fees charged by GoFundMe, the couple netted US$367,108.
All of the money was spent. Mr Coffina said US$89,000 was withdrawn in or around casinos and more than US$20,000 was spent in casino play.
Officials also seized a car, jewellery and luxury handbags from the home of McClure and D'Amico during a raid in September.
In March, McClure sent a text message to D'Amico lamenting that they had less than US$10,000 left from donors, officials said.
A few months later, Bobbitt sued McClure and D'Amico, claiming that the couple had used the donations for themselves.
"Maybe he just didn't appreciate that the lawsuit will bring out this information," Mr Coffina said.
Officials also found that in 2012, Bobbitt posted a similar story to his Facebook page, saying he had spent his supper money to help a woman.
GoFundMe said it would process all refunds to donors in the coming days. "While this type of behaviour by an individual is extremely rare, it's unacceptable and clearly it has consequences," a spokesman for GoFundMe said.