'Master con woman' Sweeten gets 8-year sentence

Authorities say that Sweeten (left) used the driver's license of Jillian Jenkinson (right) to buy plane tickets to Florida.
Authorities say that Sweeten (left) used the driver's license of Jillian Jenkinson (right) to buy plane tickets to Florida.
Posted: January 26, 2012

One hundred months in federal prison.

That was how the Bonnie Sweeten saga ended Friday in U.S. District Court as the Bucks County mother and fake kidnap victim was finally sentenced by U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr.

"You've done great wrong, and you have to pay the price," Yohn said, calling her a "master con woman." He estimated she committed about 2,000 specific fraudulent acts over five years of thieving.

"I'm very ashamed of myself," Sweeten said, before turning to her parents and telling them they did not deserve the pain she had caused.

Sweeten used a complex series of deceptions to steal $1.076 million, starting in 2004, when she was working as a paralegal in Bucks County for now-disbarred lawyer Debbie Carlitz. About $640,000 was taken from law firm accounts, while an additional $280,000 was stolen from an elderly relative's retirement account. She also forged a passport, driver's license, and a court order.

In addition, Sweeten convinced her second husband that she had graduated from law school. He threw a party for her, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf.

Sweeten was arrested in 2009 after the money was spent on an expensive home, cars, vacations, and in-vitro fertilization treatments.

But Sweeten reached national infamy when, as her crimes were about to be discovered, she claimed that two African American men had kidnapped her and one of her daughters, then 9 years old.

It was all a lie, though it briefly led police to pull over three African Americans fitting the description Sweeten gave officers in a telephone call supposedly made from the trunk of a Cadillac - when she was actually on her way to Disney World.

Yohn had held three days of hearings over a month on Sweeten's sentence before imposing the term of eight years and four months for her guilty pleas to wire fraud and identity theft. She will get credit for the time she has been in federal prison, starting in July 2010, when she was arrested and ordered held without bail.

Sweeten spoke for about 20 minutes, repeatedly apologizing to her relatives - from whom she stole money - her former coworkers, and her friends.

A number of reasons were offered to explain why a mother in her 30s turned to crime.

Defense attorney John McHugh said Sweeten was trying to conceive a child with her second husband and suffered "numerous" miscarriages. Sweeten wanted money for repeated in-vitro fertilization treatments, which typically cost $10,000 to $15,000 each, McHugh said.

Sweeten said, "I took money to do it. I wanted that baby."

McHugh also said she was addicted to a narcotic painkiller initially prescribed for migraine headaches.

Sweeten said that was true but was not an excuse. "No matter what pill I was using, I knew it was wrong and I should pay for that. I know I'm not going home for a while."

Sweeten also said she stole to buy material goods - for others - that were otherwise out of her reach. "If it could make someone happy that we had it, then I did it."

She made numerous references to her three daughters, now 18, 12, and 3 years old. Her youngest child was 1 when she was arrested.

Yohn noted that she seemed genuinely remorseful and indicated that helped persuade him to impose a sentence below the 12 years suggested by federal prosecutors.

Wolf expressed doubt about the truth of anything Sweeten said. "If her lips are moving," Sweeten is likely lying, the prosecutor said.

"She is a danger to society," she said.

Indeed, Yohn said the breadth of her fraudulent activities was "breathtaking."

He enumerated some:

She stole a checkbook and $280,000 from an elderly relative suffering from dementia; she stole the license and passport of her longtime friend and employer and used it to forge identity documents she then used to obtain a fraudulent $100,000 loan; she faked a court order from a New Jersey judge to withdraw $20,000 from a child's escrow account; she stole dozens of paychecks due her boss; and when settlement checks due law firm clients arrived, she stole those, too.

The kidnapping ruse resulted in a nine- to 24-month sentence in Bucks County Prison for identity theft and filing false reports. In 2009, Bucks County Court Judge Jeffrey L. Finley admonished her for blaming black men.

"This is a wound we want to heal, the racial divide," Finley told Sweeten. "You picked at it that day and reopened it."

At that 2009 hearing, she told Finley she wanted to apologize "to the African American community for perpetuating an ugly myth and stereotype."

A psychologist who works at the Federal Detention Center, where Sweeten is being held, testified last week that she had adjusted well to prison life and helps monitor potentially suicidal inmates.


Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.

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