A woman accused in an abduction hoax that began near Philadelphia and ended at Walt Disney World began heading back to Pennsylvania in police custody on Friday.
A drained-looking Bonnie Sweeten, 38, appeared in an Orlando, Fla., courtroom for a brief hearing Friday morning before detectives from Bucks County, Pa., escorted her to the airport for the flight home.
She was expected to be arraigned on misdemeanor identity theft and false reporting charges late Friday. Local police are also investigating whether Sweeten stole money from a family member or others, but no related charges have been filed.
Sweeten phoned 911 on Tuesday from downtown Philadelphia and told dispatchers that she and her 9-year-old daughter had been carjacked and stuffed in the trunk of a Cadillac near their suburban home. The call touched off a frantic search that ended 30 hours later at a Disney World hotel.
Sweeten had withdrawn $12,000 from several bank accounts and flown to Florida with her daughter under the name of a former co-worker whose driver’s license she had taken in a ruse, authorities said. She paid cash for the one-way tickets and for a three-night hotel stay inside the park.
Some law enforcement officials privately questioned the ease with which she bought the airline tickets and flew under the friend’s name. A Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman argued that Sweeten bore a “strong resemblance” to the other woman.
“The key point here is that every individual, regardless of what name they use, is being thoroughly screened at the checkpoint to make sure that they don’t have any guns and explosives,” said Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman in Boston.
Court records do not indicate that Sweeten has a lawyer.
Neither the county prosecutor nor county detectives handling the case returned phone messages Friday about the pending theft investigation, something authorities confirmed earlier in the week.
‘I just want the truth’
Sweeten’s husband said he is as mystified at her actions as anyone.
“I want to know more than anybody. There’s so many rumors. I just want the truth,” Larry Sweeten told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Friday from Philadelphia. “I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on.”
His wife appeared to neighbors, colleagues and other school parents to be a woman smoothly juggling the responsibilities of work and family.
But she 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 daughter Julia Rakoczy to Disney World. Police say she may also have embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from a charity she worked for.
Neighbors have said that the couple have been having marital difficulties since the birth of a daughter eight months ago, but Larry Sweeten said there were no serious problems with the marriage.
“We argued like everybody else does — little spats. We both work a lot. I have a side business. I work seven days a week. She’s always running around. She’s a great mom, involved in baseball with her daughters, dance, takes her kids to the mall, anything they want to do,” he told Lauer.
Larry Sweeten runs a landscaping business. He told Lauer that his wife handled all the couple’s finances.
“She paid the mortgage. She paid the truck payments. Anything that we have she handled. If I made a purchase over a few hundred dollars, she just asked me to let her know in advance. Everything, I thought, was fine,” he said.
He said he has yet to check on his bank accounts to see if there is any money left after his wife reportedly withdrew as much as $12,000 before going to Orlando with her daughter.
“Today or this week, I’ll be looking into my bank accounts, trying to figure out if I have money. I’ll be starting over fresh. I don’t know about my mortgage. I might be behind in my mortgage. I have no idea what’s going on,” Sweeten said.
He told Lauer he has checked with his family about reports that his wife may have stolen money from them.
“My family’s not missing any money. I asked them, they said no,” he said.
Sweeten said he joined police, relatives and Bonnie’s ex-husband in searching for her after she called 911 to say she had been abducted.
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.”
Sweeten 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.
“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 alleged embezzlement may total several hundred thousand dollars. Bucks County District Attorney Michelle Henry did not return messages Thursday for comment.
Sweeten lived with her husband 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.
Questions from the start According to the police complaint, after Sweeten withdrew thousands of dollars from several bank accounts, 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.
‘Great mother’ 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.