Pa. carjack-hoax mom gets 8 years for $1M fraud
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The in-vitro treatments. The suburban house. The lavish trips and dinners out.
None of it was worth it, a soccer mom-turned-"abduction hoax" mom told a federal judge Thursday before she was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for a $1 million swindle.
Bonnie Sweeten, 40, of Feasterville, is infamous for an alarming 911 call that claimed she and her 9-year-old daughter had been carjacked by two black men. She said they'd been stuffed into the trunk of another vehicle. She made an equally furtive call to her second husband.
Sweeten, who is white, was instead on her way to the airport with her middle child in May 2009, about to use a co-worker's passport to board a flight to Florida. She feared an arrest looming in the fraud scheme. The FBI found the pair unharmed the next day at Disney World.
"I wanted something so bad that I would do whatever I had to do to get it," Sweeten said Thursday. "When you go to prison, you realize you don't need anything monetary. You don't need any of it."
Sweeten's voice cracked when she apologized for stealing $280,000 from an elderly relative after gaining access to his retirement account papers at her former mother-in-law's home. She and the woman were extremely close.
"My actions were cruel and sick. What I did was wrong to (law firm) clients as well, but to do it to family, I'm very ashamed of myself," said Sweeten, a paralegal who stole $640,000 from the one-lawyer firm where she worked and took out a $150,000 loan on the lawyer's real estate. She has already spent a year in prison for the fake 911 call.
Sweeten had developed elaborate means to steal the money, doctoring up a judge's order for law firm clients; telling her husband she had gotten a law degree, leading him to throw a party; and posing as her boss at the refinancing of the woman's property.
"Her conduct has shown that, at her core, she is a criminal," Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf argued in court. "She is a master con artist."
Sweeten and her husband, a self-employed landscaper, were spending $4,000 a month on their $400,000 mortgage and another $8,000 a month through debit purchases, according to the FBI.
A co-worker wondered how she could afford frequent trips and dinner out several nights a week. And she was going through expensive fertility treatments to try to have another child with her new husband, only to suffer what she called "countless" miscarriages.
At least one friend thought "she was trying to please her husband by providing them with things they could not afford," U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. said, citing a letter he received.
Sweeten has been in custody since June 2009, just weeks after the daughter she eventually had with husband Larry Sweeten turned 1. She served nearly a year in state prison for the 911 hoax, and has been in federal custody since then. With time served, she'll be eligible for release in 2018.
"Visiting an infant, a toddler in prison — I know it's what I deserve. It's not what she deserves," Sweeten said of her youngest child.
She talks daily with her two older girls, but has missed their proms and her oldest daughter's college search. She'll now miss that daughter's high school graduation, she said.
She thanked both former husbands for stepping in to raise the girls, noting their considerable financial hardship. Neither was in court. Sweeten will owe nearly $1.1 million in restitution when she leaves prison.
Her longtime boss, lawyer Debbie Carlitz, listened intently to her courtroom apologies, but later declined to comment. Sweeten steered many of Carlitz's paychecks to her own bank account. Carlitz didn't miss them because her husband at the time was wealthy, she testified.
Sweeten also stole settlement money owed to clients, then stole from her family when the clients complained. She admitted Thursday she was "robbing Peter to pay Paul." When the scheme snowballed out of control, she fled.
"And then one day I'm missing. And it all came out after that," Sweeten said Thursday.
To her surprise, some friends and relatives remained supportive.
"So why didn't I go to them in the beginning and tell them I needed ... help?" she wondered.
Public defender James McHugh argued that a painkiller addiction tripped up the once law-abiding mother and school volunteer. He said she has suffered enough, given the demise of her second marriage and the years lost with her children. He said she has turned a corner in prison and is now a mentor to other women inmates.
"Ms. Sweeten is not the same person she was when she committed these crimes," McHugh said.