By Sean Claiborne, America’s Heroes Group
The $600 million crowdsourcing firm, GoFundMe, Inc., released a statement on September 6, agreeing to pay a homeless veteran, Johnny Bobbitt, Jr. the missing proceeds from over $400,000 in donations that were allegedly mishandled by a New Jersey couple.
Last October, when Katelyn McClure’s car ran out of gas on a Philadelphia off ramp around midnight, she was alone, afraid, and had no money. Marine veteran, Johnny Bobbitt Jr., a panhandler, slept under the I-95 viaduct where McClure’s car stopped. Bobbitt was among America’s estimated 40,000 homeless veterans that can be found without shelter on any given night in America.
Bobbitt told McClure “roll up your windows, lock your doors, I will be right back.”
The homeless veteran, Mr. Bobbitt, took $20 out of his own pocket to purchase a jug of gas at the local gas station for the young lady. His selfless act of kindness allowed McClure to drive home safely as Bobbitt returned to the cold shadows under the I-95 viaduct.
The young lady was so grateful for what this veteran had done for her, that she and her boyfriend, Mark D’Amico, set up a GoFundMe campaign online last November. It only took several minutes to set up the webpage, but in several weeks, the internet site raised over $400,000. Over 14,000 people donated from all over the world.
Bobbitt and McClure’s heart-felt story went viral on the internet, in print, and on television just in time for the 2017 Christmas holiday season. But, no one expected the webpage to raise so much money so fast. And as it turned out, no one was prepared for the planning and accountability required.
Despite making claims on the GoFundMe site to divide the donation proceeds into two trusts for Bobbitt, one for income to live off of now, and one as a retirement fund, McClure and her boyfriend, D’Amico, did not produce any evidence that a trust was ever created for the donations.
In a television interview on NBC’s Megyn Kelly Today show, D’Amico admitted to initially comingling the GoFundMe donation proceeds with personal bank accounts shared by D’Amico and McClure.
The couple bought Bobbitt a used SUV, a mobile camper, a cell phone, clothes and allowed Bobbitt to live in the mobile camper on the couple’s residential property. Nonetheless, the relationship soured quickly when the once homeless veteran suspected the couple of squandering about half of his donation proceeds.
McClure and D’Amico insisted to the Philadelphia Inquirer that Bobbitt needed a gatekeeper because Bobbitt has a heroin addiction. D’Amico told the Inquirer that giving money to an addict is like “giving him a loaded gun.”
Bobbitt, has admitted that he is addicted to heroin. According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 70% of homeless veterans suffer from some form of substance abuse. Unless the addict enters into an inpatient residential drug rehab program, heroin addicts only have a 35% drug program completion rate. Around 11% of homeless veterans are addicted to heroin according to the 2007 study.
Notwithstanding, the couple flaunted stacks of new swag and luxuries on social media broadcasts, at vacation resorts, and hotels from all over the country. The couple even purchased a BMW. They insist however, that the only money that was used from the donation proceeds was a $500 loan that Bobbitt made to D’Amico at a casino.
Represented pro bono by Philadelphia law firm Cozen O’Connor, an advocate for veteran causes, Bobbitt sued McClure and D’Amico. According to Bobbitt’s attorney, Bobbitt had only received about $75,000 of the $400,000 that was raised on his behalf.
McClure and D’Amico claim that they intended to give the Marine veteran access to his money once he kicked his drug habit and found a job.
The couple’s attorney, Ernest E. Badway, stated in court that whatever moneys remained of the GoFundMe donations were gone. With that, Bobbit’s civil lawsuit was paused, pending a criminal investigation on McClure and D’Amico launched by the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office in Pennsylvania.
In a statement obtained by US News and World Report, Badway wrote “it is expected that one or both of the defendants will likely be indicted, my firm and I will no longer be able to continue our representation of them in this matter.”
On September 6th, after McClure and D’Amico failed a court order to hand over the remainder of the donation proceeds, police raided their home to recover whatever remaining assets could be found. This included the purchased BMW that was parked in the driveway.
Searching “veteran” on the GoFundMe website, populates over 140,000 individual webpage campaigns dedicated to raising money for military veterans. However critics point out that websites like GoFundMe need to do more to assess the authenticity of their donation campaigns.
Freelance finance reporter, Adrienne Gonzalez, has publicized over 400 cases of alleged GoFundMe misuse and fraud on her blog site, GoFraudMe, since 2015. Gonzalez told the Crusader, “they [GoFundMe] don’t verify campaigns…whatever they are or aren’t doing now isn’t working.”
A 2017 study by AARP found that over a five-year period, veterans were twice as likely to lose money to scams than non-veterans. In that study, 25% of veterans reported receiving 10 or more suspicious phone calls per week, with 78% of those saying that they were pitched scams tailored to their military service.
GoFundMe claims in a public statement, “ Our platform is backed by the GoFundMe Guarantee, which means that in the rare case that GoFundMe, law enforcement or a user finds campaigns are misused, donors and beneficiaries are protected.”
Before the court order was issued, Bobbitt reported on Youtube that he had sold the mobile camper. Bobbitt also reported that the SUV that he received “broke down,” it’s whereabouts appear unclear. He also admitted that he used some of the money that he received to feed his destructive drug habit.
Bobbitt, under the court supervised counsel of his attorney, reportedly has entered a 30-day drug treatment program. Any money that Bobbitt is to receive after the civil and criminal cases are complete will be placed in a court controlled trust on his behalf.
In Megyn Kelly’s NBC interview, McClure held back tears as she tried to reconcile in her mind how mutual acts of kindness morphed into such a bitter and public legal dispute. “He [Bobbitt] doesn’t belong on the street, this is not where he belongs, he belongs just to live like a normal human being,” she said.
So far, McClure and D’Amico have not been charged with any crime regarding their dispute with Bobbitt. Their next court date is in December pending the findings of a forensic audit of bank records and the accounting of any evidence which may have been seized at the raid on McClure and D’Amico’s home.
GoFundMe said that they will replace any money that McClure and D’Amico may have taken.
Sean Claiborne, is a co-producer and panelist of America’s Heroes Group a weekly radio broadcast that explores veterans’ issues. The broadcast airs 4 p.m. Saturdays on WVON AM1690 and iHeart radio. Claiborne is also a Vice President at Wintrust Investments, LLC, a Chicago-based asset management firm.