Pa. kidnap hoax mom pleads guilty in fraud case

A white suburban woman who staged a hoax kidnapping of her and her daughter and blamed it on two black men before flying to Disney World admitted Tuesday that she fled after swindling a huge sum of money from her ex-boss and an elderly relative.

Bonnie Sweeten told a 911 operator in 2009 that the men had kidnapped her and her 9-year-old daughter and stuffed them in the trunk of a Cadillac. Mother and child surfaced days later at a Disney hotel in Orlando, Fla.

Sweeten, a 40-year-old paralegal from Feasterville, just outside Philadelphia, served a year in prison for the false 911 call. She now faces a likely six to eight years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines for the fraud scheme, which prosecutors pegged at more than $1 million. She diverted more than $700,000 from client settlements and other funds at her law firm and another $280,000 from the relative's Vanguard investment account, prosecutors said.

Sweeten, a PTA mom, used the money to fund a lifestyle beyond the means of her and her second husband, a self-employed landscaper. They lived in a $425,000 house, spent thousands of dollars on infertility treatments and enjoyed a gym membership, trips, restaurant meals and other niceties.

The mother of three has said her life unraveled amid marital, financial and other stresses.

"I let my life slip out of control," she said at her state court sentencing in August 2009. "My life imploded."

Defense lawyer James McHugh on Tuesday called his client "very remorseful."

Sweeten kept the books at work and at home and diverted money from one to the other for more than four years, Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf said.

She stole the relative's money to try to pay back a client's settlement money at the law firm, only to be hounded by other relatives about the Vanguard account. She finally wrote them a check to replace the retirement funds — and fled before the check bounced, Wolf said.

Sweeten parked her vehicle on a downtown Philadelphia street May 26, 2009, made the 911 call and hopped in a cab to the airport. She flew to Florida with her daughter under a co-worker's name after creating a ruse to get the woman's driver's license.

She told the daughter to make up a name "because Mommy did something wrong and she could go to jail," prosecutors said.

At her August 2009 sentencing for the false police report, a judge offended by her performance on a 911 tape said her hoax led to a frantic national search, traumatized her daughter and, perhaps worst of all, tore open society's racial wounds.

"Your wants, your needs, your wishes and desires came before everybody," Judge Jeffrey L. Finley said.

He called Sweeten "a calculating, manipulative, hardhearted woman."

Sweeten's first husband, Tony Rakoczy, went to court then to support the mother of his two girls. But neither husband, nor any other family members, appeared to be in the courtroom Tuesday.

According to prosecutors, Sweeten graduated from a 1998 shoplifting charge to a 2005 prescription drug forgery case to the sensational abduction hoax.

Sweeten's second husband, Larry Sweeten, amid her disappearance, said he was not aware of any marital or financial woes. Bonnie Sweeten also controlled the finances of the landscaping company, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Larry Sweeten separated from Bonnie Sweeten soon after the kidnapping hoax. Their divorce is now final.

Bonnie Sweeten faces a two-year mandatory minimum for aggravated identity theft and up to 20 additional years for wire fraud at her Sept. 21 sentencing.

McHugh, the defense attorney, said he and his client "look forward to presenting numerous mitigating factors" at that time.