Judge: Pa. mom in kidnap hoax faces stiff sentence

AP News
Posted: Jan 05, 2012 7:19 PM
Judge: Pa. mom in kidnap hoax faces stiff sentence

A suburban Philadelphia mother should expect significant prison time for swindling her boss and a relative of as much as $1 million before staging a hoax kidnapping and taking her 9-year-old daughter to Disney World, a federal judge said Thursday.

Prosecutors want Bonnie Sweeten to spend 10 years in prison for a swindle that they say reached seven figures. Arguments over the fraud total dragged on Thursday, forcing the sentencing hearing into a second day, not yet scheduled.

Sweeten, 40, triggered a national search in May 2009 when she told a 911 operator she and her daughter had been carjacked by two black men and stuffed into the trunk of a car. Sweeten, who is white, served a year in state prison for the hoax and has been in federal custody ever since.

New details emerged Thursday of the lavish lifestyle the paralegal enjoyed before her frantic _ and phony _ 911 call.

She and her second husband, a landscaper, were spending $4,000 a month on their $400,000 mortgage and an additional $8,000 a month through debit purchases, an FBI agent testified.

A co-worker couldn't figure out how she had gone from a "mobile home community" to a life replete with "clothes, shoes, jewelry, purses," not to mention a $30,000 dump truck purchased for her husband and thousands of dollars spent on infertility treatments.

"They ate out constantly, breakfast, lunch, dinner because she didn't cook. Every room in (her) house had the big flat screen TV, brand new furniture ... vacations ... a cruise," the suspicious co-worker told authorities, according to the government's sentencing memo.

Sweeten devised elaborate means to steal $640,000 from the one-lawyer firm and $283,000 from the retirement accounts of her first husband's elderly grandfather, prosecutors said. She also took out $150,000 in personal loans in her boss' name.

"I'm not going to say I was minding the store. ... I wasn't," boss Debbie Carlitz testified Thursday.

She said she was distracted in recent years by her daughter's health problems and a failing marriage. She also acknowledged a prior addiction to Ritalin, a drug often used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Sweeten frequently deposited Carlitz's paychecks into her own bank account. Carlitz said she never noticed because her then-husband was making big money selling custom mattresses, so she had plenty of other money in her account.

But the family of Sweeten's first husband noticed their missing money. Her former mother-in-law was close with Sweeten and kept giving her more time to pay it back.

"She didn't want to see Bonnie go to jail because she didn't want to hurt the grandchildren," said the woman's brother, Michael Biondino, of California. The person defrauded was their father, Victor, a retired steelworker.

When the ultimatum finally came, Sweeten said she had gotten help from her parents. She sent out a check for $280,000 _ and then called in the hoax and fled before it bounced.

Victor Biondino, now 94 and suffering from dementia, doesn't know that he was swindled, the son said. The money represented his life savings. The family recouped some of the money through a lawsuit against Vanguard but doesn't expect to recover the final $83,000 or the $40,000 in legal fees, he said.

Sweeten went to lengthy measures to pull off the various frauds, posing as Carlitz to obtain the mortgage-equity loan and as her co-worker to board the flight to Florida, authorities said. She stole some of the firm money from client accounts, authorities said.

She faces a minimum of two years in prison after pleading guilty last year to aggravated identity theft and an additional six-to-eight-year guideline range for the fraud.

Public defender James McHugh hopes to reduce the sentence by knocking the fraud loss to below $1 million and convincing the judge that the scheme was not a sophisticated one.

He has called his client "very remorseful."