A feel-good tale of a homeless man using his last 20 dollars to help a stranded woman buy petrol was a complete lie, manufactured to get strangers to donate more than 400,000 dollars (£313,000) to help the good Samaritan, a prosecutor has said.
Scott Coffina announced criminal charges against the couple who told the story to newspapers and television stations along with the homeless man who allegedly conspired with them to tell it.
He said the money, donated to the homeless man, Johnny Bobbitt, would be refunded to people who saw the story and contributed to him through a GoFundMe page set up by the couple, Mark D’Amico and Katelyn McClure.
“The entire campaign was predicated on a lie,” Coffina said. “It was fictitious and illegal and there are consequences.”
Bobbitt was arrested on Wednesday night by in Philadelphia and remains in custody.
D’Amico and McClure surrendered to authorities Wednesday night and were released.
All were charged with theft by deception.
Investigators searched the home of D’Amico and McClure in Florence, New Jersey, in September after questions arose about what happened to the money they raised for Bobbitt.
The couple claimed he helped McClure get petrol after she became stranded in Philadelphia last year.
McClure said that in an attempt to thank Bobbitt for his help, she set up the fundraising page, which brought in more than 400,000 dollars and landed them in the national news.
Coffina said almost no part of the tale was true. McClure did not run out of petrol. Bobbitt did not spot her in trouble and give her money.
Less than an hour after the couple set up the page to solicit donations, McClure sent a text message to a friend acknowledging the story was “completely made up”.
Prosecutors began investigating after Bobbitt claimed he was not getting the money that had been raised on his behalf. He later sued the couple.
It is not clear what happened to the money, though Bobbitt’s lawyer has said it is all gone.