The US protagonists in a viral “pay it forward” fundraising campaign for a homeless man have been charged with theft by deception and conspiracy.
Kate McClure and Mark D’Amico raised more than $400,000 (£313,000) for homeless ex-marine Johnny Bobbitt.
But, in August, Mr Bobbitt launched legal action against the couple, claiming he did not get his fair share.
Now, state prosecutors say Mr Bobbitt was complicit in the alleged plot. All three face the same charges.
On Thursday, the prosecutor’s office in Burlington County, New Jersey, held in a press conference, calling it a “fake feel good story”. It said the campaign was predicated on a “lie”, which was allegedly concocted a month it was launched.
The campaign text had said that Mr Bobbitt had used “his last $20” to help Ms McClure when her car broke down in 2017.
Mr Bobbitt remains in custody and the couple were released pending a court date on 24 December.
A lawyer for Mr D’Amico, 39 and Ms McClure, 28, declined to comment, according to US media.
The three face potential sentences of five to 10 years for the second-degree crimes.
What was the original campaign?
Mr Bobbitt and the couple first came to prominence in November 2017 when Ms McClure launched a crowdfunding Go Fund Me campaign, which, they said, was re-pay the debt of a homeless man who came to her aid at the side of a road.
A photograph of Ms McClure and Mr Bobbitt, a veteran and drug addict who had lived on the streets for several years, standing on the side of the road, fronted the fundraising campaign.
More than 14,000 people donated, many inspired by the story’s details, such as Mr Bobbitt instructing Ms McClure to lock her car doors before he returned with a can of petrol.
Officials said on Thursday they believe the photo was staged after the three met previously when Ms McClure and Mr D’Amico visited a casino near an underpass where Mr Bobbitt spent time.
When did things go wrong?
The relationship between the three soured in August when Mr Bobbitt brought legal action against the couple, alleging they were using the funds as their personal “piggy bank” to fund an extravagant lifestyle.
After exceeding their original fundraising goal of $10,000, they bought clothing and a new camper van for Mr Bobbitt, but later reportedly asked him to remove it from outside their property.
Ms McClure and Mr D’Amico told their online supporters the money would go to two financial trusts for Mr Bobbitt, as well as a lawyer and a financial adviser to help him manage all the money.
“Every dollar he ever touched was used for drugs,” Mr D’Amico told NBC in a nationally televised interview in August.
Investigators claimed the three originally made up the story to make people feel bad and compel donors to contribute to a cause.
What happened to the money?
Net proceeds for Ms McClure and Mr D’Amico amounted to more than $367,000 (£287,000) and were spent on a car, holidays, high-end handbags and casino gambling. Mr Bobbitt received about $75,000 (£58,000).
In thousands of text messages read by police, the couple had discussed financial woes, inability to pay bills and debts, and Mr D’Amico said he hoped to raise more money by pursuing a book deal about the story.
Expressing sympathy for Mr Bobbitt’s homelessness, the prosecutor nonetheless accused the veteran of being “fully complicit” in the campaign, promoting it in several media appearances and appearing in the original photograph.
Mr Bobbitt posted a similar story on Facebook in 2012 about helping a woman who had run out of gas, officials say, but that “full responsibility” should be ascribed to all three.
In a statement to CNN, a spokesman for the crowdfunding site Go Fund Me confirmed donors who contributed to the campaign will receive a refund.
By Georgina Rannard, UGC & Social News