Bonnie Sweeten appeared to neighbors, colleagues and other school parents like a woman smoothly juggling the responsibilities of work and family.
But the 38-year-old might have cracked this week when, police say, she drained several bank accounts, took a co-worker’s driver’s license, faked a 911 call about being stuffed in a car trunk, and boarded a flight with her 9-year-old daughter to Disney World.
The call touched off a frantic search for the pair that ended 30 hours later when police handcuffed Sweeten as she and the child returned to their hotel at the amusement park on Wednesday night.
She has been charged with filing a false report and identity theft. Records listed no lawyer for her yet.
The missing girl, Julia Rakoczy, was reunited with her father at an Orlando police station on Thursday afternoon. A police spokesman says Rakoczy started crying when her father, Anthony Rakoczy, arrived.
“The daughter was very concerned for her mother,” said Jim Solomons, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. “To see any one of your parents arrested and taken to jail and then you’re put in protective custody ... that’s a terrible situation for anyone, much less a kid.”
Detectives from Bucks County, Pa., were in Orlando to bring Sweeten back to Pennsylvania if she waived extradition.
Sweeten fled as she was being investigated for theft from a relative and perhaps others, authorities said. No charges had been filed in that probe.
She worked for 15 years for Debbie Carlitz, a lawyer in suburban Philadelphia whose law license has been inactive or suspended in recent years, according to state documents. Sweeten is listed as a director at a foundation Carlitz runs, The Carlitz Foundation, which according to its Web site raises money for autism research and for people in Burma.
The charity is not registered in Pennsylvania or listed in Guidestar, a national database of IRS-recognized charities.
Carlitz, reached by phone Thursday morning, said she was not sure whether any money was missing from her coffers.
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“I can’t (tell you) right now,” she said. “I need to gather the information myself.”
The Bucks County Courier Times, citing police, said the embezzlement may total several hundred thousand dollars. Bucks County District Attorney Michelle Henry did not return messages Thursday for comment.Video: Father, ex-husband: ‘Let them go’
Sweeten lived with her husband, landscaper Richard L. Sweeten, in a $425,000 house in a new development in bucolic Bucks County. She also has a 15-year-old daughter by Rakoczy, who lives nearby, and an 8-month-old girl with Sweeten.
Questions from the start
According to the police complaint, Sweeten withdrew more than $12,000 from several bank accounts in the past week.
She then went to the home of former co-worker Jillian Jenkinson Tuesday afternoon and said she needed to make a copy of her driver’s license to roll over her 401(k) retirement account, the papers said. Sweeten then took her friend’s license to the airport, where she paid cash to book a flight in Jenkinson’s name.
She also booked the motel room under that name and paid for it through Friday, the FBI said.
Police staked out the Disney complex after learning of the alleged identity switch and confirming through airport security video that mother and daughter had actually boarded the Orlando flight. Concerned about the girl’s safety, they waited at the hotel for them to return Wednesday night.
“We didn’t know this woman’s state of mind,” said agent J.J. Klaver, the FBI spokesman in Philadelphia.
Sweeten was arrested at about 8:40 p.m.
Henry said that police had questions about the abduction story almost from the beginning. Those questions deepened early Wednesday when Sweeten’s SUV was found undamaged on a Philadelphia street. It had been ticketed for parking illegally shortly after Sweeten made her phone call.
“You have to treat all of these calls seriously, but almost right from the beginning, there seemed to be issues with the report,” Henry said. “The good thing is we were able to resolve it very, very quickly. No one had been questioned, no one had been arrested based on her false report.”
Henry’s office and local police cooperated with FBI special agents from Philadelphia in investigating the bizarre case, which began Tuesday afternoon when Sweeten made a 911 call from Philadelphia. She claimed her GMC Denali SUV had been rear-ended by two black men in a Cadillac who then locked her and Julia in the trunk of their car.
In the frantic call, Sweeten said two men had bumped her 2005 GMC Denali, carjacked her and stuffed her in the trunk of a dark Cadillac. She implied that her daughter was with her in the trunk, according to Philadelphia police Lt. Frank Vanore, who listened to tapes of the calls.
Sweeten, who is white, described her assailants as black but otherwise gave few details about their appearance, Vanore said.
“It was pretty generic,” he said.
Julia Rakoczy attended elementary school in Bensalem until she was withdrawn from classes May 1, said Susan Harder, an administrative assistant with the Bensalem Township School District.
Neighbors on Sweeten’s cul-de-sac describe her as someone who always remembered other children’s birthdays and hosted neighborhood parties. They saw the family playing outside over the Memorial Day weekend while Sweeten’s husband worked on a yard project.
“They’re still looking into the motive behind this. We believe it may have to do with some domestic problems she may have been having with her husband,” district attorney Henry told TODAY’s Natalie Morales Thursday. Henry said the couple may also have been facing financial problems.
Anthony Rakoczy thinks his ex-wife got in over her head and “lost it a little bit.”
“I’ve known this woman for a long time,” he said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “She’s always been very together, tons of friends. Everybody loves her.”
When police called to tell Rakoczy that his daughter and ex-wife had reported that they were kidnapped and being held in the trunk of the car, he said his initial reaction was: “That this was not real. That this is stuff you see on TV, and stuff that doesn’t happen to me. I was in shock.”
Speaking from Philadelphia with TODAY’s Natalie Morales Wednesday morning, the husband and father’s voice broke with emotion as he added, “[I’m] still in shock.”
Although Sweeten and Rakoczy have been divorced for at least seven years, they continue to live near each other and remain on good terms. Rakoczy sees his daughters frequently, and had spent time with Julia the day before the alleged abduction.
He described Sweeten as “a great mother, and she’s very organized — always on top of all this stuff the girls have going on; their dancing and their softball and doctor’s appointments, all that stuff.”
— Mike Celizic, with additional reporting by The Associated Press.
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