PHILADELPHIA -- The former Pennsylvania paralegal who drew national attention with a far-fetched 2009 kidnapping hoax, is expected to change her not-guilty plea to federal charges Tuesday.
Bonnie Sweeten, 40, a mother of three from Feasterville, is accused of defrauding relatives, legal clients and her boss out of more than $700,000.
She had been scheduled for trial starting Monday in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, more than a year after being charged with wire fraud, bank fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, identity theft and other crimes.
But now a change-of-plea hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday before Senior U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr.
Federal authorities would not say whether Sweeten would plead guilty or no contest, and to which charges she would plead.
Her lawyer, assistant federal defender James J. McHugh, did not return a call seeking comment. But in court papers, he had sought a delay of Sweeten's original trial date in March -- in part to allow time for plea negotiations.
A trial, McHugh wrote, would involve "a very lengthy list of witnesses" and "several large boxes of financial records."
In May 2009, Sweeten gained national notoriety by calling 911 and reporting that two black men had kidnapped her and her 9-year-old daughter. The call prompted an Amber Alert before Sweeten was arrested the next day at Walt Disney World, where she had flown with the child using a co-worker's stolen identity.
The ruse, which outraged African-Americans and many others, earned Sweeten a nine- to 24-month sentence in Bucks County for identity theft and filing false reports. She has been held in Philadelphia's Federal Detention Center since completing her county term last year.
Sweeten has acknowledged fleeing to avoid arrest for some even larger crimes -- including the theft of $280,000 from the retirement account of a 92-year-old man who suffers from dementia. Prosecutors said she had stolen blank checks from the man's house, made them out to herself, and forged his signature on them.
Prosecutors contend that Sweeten stole the retirement funds to repay several clients of her former boss, attorney Debbie Carlitz. Sweeten is accused of stealing the clients' civil settlement money, then forging the signature of a New Jersey judge on a court order to try to get more.
Sweeten also is charged with stealing more than $100,000 from Carlitz by taking out a fraudulent loan in the lawyer's name.
"We're glad Sweeten is finally accepting responsibility for her crimes and sparing her victims the additional ordeal of testifying at trial," said Ellen C. Brotman, an attorney for Carlitz who praised federal authorities for their work.
"However," Brotman said, "this plea doesn't make up for all the irreparable harm she has caused to Ms. Carlitz and so many others."
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