Mark D’Amico and his girlfriend said they wanted to reward a homeless man who had spent his last $20 to help her after she ran out of gas on a highway in Philadelphia in November 2017. The couple started a GoFundMe campaign that sought $10,000 to provide rent, a reliable vehicle and some living expenses for the man.
The effort gained widespread attention and raked in more than $400,000 from thousands of donors. But the story was made up, state and federal authorities said.
On Friday, Mr. D’Amico, 43, was sentenced to five years in New Jersey state prison for his role in the fraud, the Burlington County prosecutor’s office said. Mr. D’Amico, of Florence, N.J., had pleaded guilty in December 2019 to misapplication of entrusted property.
“People genuinely wanted to believe it was true,” LaChia L. Bradshaw, the county prosecutor, said in a statement. “But it was all a lie, and it was illegal. Our office is pleased to bring justice for the more than 14,000 kindhearted people who thought they were helping someone who was living in a desperate situation.”
Mark G. Davis, a lawyer listed for Mr. D’Amico, did not immediately return phone and email messages on Sunday.
Mr. D’Amico’s girlfriend at the time, Katelyn McClure, of Bordentown, N.J., and the homeless man, Johnny Bobbitt of Philadelphia, were also charged in 2018, prosecutors said.
Ms. McClure pleaded guilty in April 2019 to theft by deception in exchange for a sentence of four years in state prison, prosecutors said. She is scheduled to be sentenced in the state Superior Court on Sept. 9.
Mr. Bobbitt pleaded guilty in March 2019 to conspiracy to commit theft by deception and was admitted into a program that offers treatment rather than incarceration to people with substance-abuse problems, prosecutors said. They added he could face five years in state prison if he does not meet the program’s requirements, which include frequent testing for drug use.
State prosecutors put the three cases on hold while federal prosecutors in New Jersey pursued their own charges, the authorities said.
Mr. D’Amico was sentenced in April to 27 months in federal prison; his state and federal sentences are running concurrently. Ms. McClure was sentenced in federal court last month to a year in prison, the authorities said. Mr. Bobbitt is set to be sentenced on Aug. 23 in federal court.
A federal judge ordered Mr. D’Amico and Ms. McClure to make full restitution to GoFundMe, state prosecutors said. The company did not immediately return an email on Sunday but said in November 2018 that it would refund all donations for Mr. Bobbitt, calling the scheme “extremely rare” and “unacceptable.”
GoFundMe allows anyone to suggest a cause worthy of donations. Thousands of causes vie for attention, so users often rely on emotional appeals to stand out. In November 2017, the couple’s campaign, titled “Paying It Forward,” quickly took off.
Federal prosecutors said that the couple spent most of the money on gambling, vacations, a BMW vehicle, a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon and Louis Vuitton handbags. The authorities said the couple set up a bank account for Mr. Bobbitt in December 2017 and deposited just $25,000; the couple later said they wanted to keep him from spending it all at once.
Mr. Bobbitt sued the couple in 2018, saying that he had ultimately received just $75,000, which included the value of a camper he had temporarily lived in, and that they had spent the rest. GoFundMe announced in 2018 that it would help cover the costs to make sure Mr. Bobbitt got all of the money he was due.
The scheme soon fell apart. The federal authorities read more than 60,000 text messages sent by Ms. McClure and Mr. D’Amico, including one Ms. McClure sent to a friend an hour after the GoFundMe campaign began.
“OK, so wait, the gas part is completely made up but the guy isn’t,” Ms. McClure said in the message. “I had to make something up so people will feel bad.”