Kidnap hoax mom pleads guilty to fraud

Jun 21 2011 - 5:06pm

PHILADELPHIA -- Bonnie Sweeten, the former paralegal from Feasterville, Pa., convicted in a far-fetched 2009 kidnapping hoax that drew national attention, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and identity theft charges Tuesday afternoon in federal court.

U.S. District Court Judge William H. Yohn Jr. said he would sentence Sweeten on Sept. 21, after receiving a presentencing report. Her potential sentence ranges from two to 22 years in prison, fines of up to $500,000, and restitution ranging from $400,000 to $2.5 million.

After more than two years of courtroom denials, Sweeten, sniffling and wiping at her eyes, admitted to a massive series of frauds between November 2005 and May 2009, in which she stole from the lawyer who employed her, from clients of the law firm and from an elderly relative, forging an array of documents along the way.

When Sweeten realized that she was about to be exposed and possibly arrested, Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf said, she faked her own kidnapping and fled. Federal authorities arrested her and her 9-year-old daughter the following day at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Sweeten, 40, a mother of three, was 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.

Instead, a change-of-plea hearing was held before Yohn.

In court papers, her lawyer, assistant federal defender James J. McHugh, 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 9- 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 alleged 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."

(c) 2011, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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