In any ordinary news season, the face of Bonnie Sweeten -- hardworking blonde suburban mom of three daughters and unlikely identity thief -- would have been plastered on the cover of every gossip magazine in the supermarket. Long before she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of identity theft and filing a false report, her neighbors in the Philadelphia suburb of Feasterville knew the 38-year-old Sweeten as the perfect friend: honest, caring, trustworthy. By pleading guilty, she has followed in the footsteps of fellow schemer Madoff; like him, she has ensured that the details of her sordid story will never be fully unraveled.
Sweeten's tale, as documented in The Philadelphia Daily News on Tuesday, began with a May 26 phone call to the Philadelphia police. In hysterical, terrified tones, she claimed that she had been involved in a fender-bender with two black men and was forced into the trunk of their Cadillac sedan. The police, shaken by her account, classified the case as a kidnapping and quickly contacted the FBI.
Then things began to unravel. The police found Sweeten's car unharmed and far from the site of the alleged kidnapping. Officers also discovered that Sweeten had withdrawn her 9-year-old daughter Julia from school, withdrawn large sums of cash from the bank, and left a cryptic note for her husband. Most revealing was the surveillance video that showed her and Julia boarding a flight to Orlando -- the tickets bought with cash and the driver's license of a woman named Jillian Jenkinsen. The passenger who sat beside Sweeten on the way to Florida recalled that she was friendly, even flirtatious, suggesting a rendezvous in Orlando.
Once Sweeten and her daughter got to town, they checked into the Grand Floridian hotel. The next morning, they rode on Disney's Splash Mountain water park ride, and when they returned to the hotel, they were apprehended by detectives from the Orange County Sheriff's office. Sweeten, it emerged, had fled after having apparently stolen $280,000 from the retirement account of Victor Biondino, the declining grandfather of her ex-husband. After relatives had confronted her, she had given them a check for $285,000, which bounced on the day she left for Orlando.
Detectives in Florida found considerable evidence -- prescription drugs, suicide notes addressed to her other daughters -- that Sweeten had planned to kill herself. Under questioning, Sweeten seemed drugged, becoming increasingly incoherent until she vomited and urinated on herself. In her pocketbook, police found credit cards issued in the name of Debbie Carlitz: Sweeten's employer of 13 years.
Sweeten's relationship with Carlitz was baffling. Carlitz, a lawyer-philanthropist, was cited in March 2008 for practicing law on an inactive license, and was suspended from legal practice for a year and a day. (Carlitz's law firm is under investigation in the theft of a client's $100,000 settlement check.) While serving her punishment, Carlitz went into business selling mattresses to chiropractors, hiring Sweeten, who was trained as a paralegal, as her marketing director. Sweeten was also listed as director of The Carlitz Foundation, a nonprofit that solicts donations for autism research and humanitarian aid to Burma.
Sweeten, authorities say, hadn't stolen only from her ex-husband's grandfather; she had also taken out a $100,000 business mortgage in Carlitz's name (without Carlitz's knowledge). And Sweeten got Jillian Jenkinsen's license after persuading Jenkinsen, a former employee of the firm, to provide proof of identity to withdraw retirement funds that the firm was holding on her behalf. The $280,000 that Sweeten stole from her ex-grandfather-in-law appears to have been used to pay court settlements for two of Carlitz's clients, raising a wide variety of questions that remain unanswered. Why did Sweeten, and not the firm, pay for these settlements? How could Carlitz miss the questionable accounting that was going on beneath her nose? Was Sweeten a patsy, covering for someone else?
Sweeten's decision to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of identity theft and filing a false report means that these questions will remain unanswered. As she settles into the Bucks County Correctional Facility to serve out her nine-to-23-month sentence, it seems unlikely that we'll ever learn all the details of her crime.