San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano Woman Pleads Guilty to Fire Scam

A San Juan Capistrano woman, who made appeals on the "Dr. Phil" show and social media sites that netted around $6,000 in cash and goods that she claimed would go to crews battling the massive Holy Fire, pleaded guilty Friday to nearly three dozen criminal charges stemming from the donation scam.

Ashley Kay Bemis was sentenced to 177 days in jail, or about credit for time served since her arrest Dec. 18.

Bemis admitted one count of grand theft and four counts of second-degree burglary, all felonies, and six counts of dissuading a witness from reporting a crime and two dozen fraud counts, all misdemeanors.

The 28-year-old unmarried defendant claimed to be married to a firefighter and posted photos of herself and the phony husband asking for donations on various social media pages, according to Orange County Sheriff's Department investigators.

In those posts and her appearance on the "Dr. Phil" show, Bemis appealed for goods she claimed the firefighters, including the fake husband, needed as they battled the blaze, according to prosecutors. The Holy Fire, which broke out in August, burned 23,000 acres in the Cleveland National Forest in Riverside and Orange counties and destroyed 18 structures.

"When she put this (plea) out there, people really responded," Deputy District Attorney Rahul Gupta said when she was charged.

Sheriff's investigators eventually found other victims who said she tricked them into throwing her baby showers, where she received cash gifts, by faking a pregnancy complete with a phony baby bump, Gupta said.

Bemis was not charged in that alleged scam because of statute of limitations issues, but the evidence could have been used as part of establishing an alleged pattern and practice of fraud in the current case if it went to trial, Gupta said.

A suspicious fire captain from a local agency contacted sheriff's deputies, triggering an investigation of Bemis. Investigators say they recovered some of the donated items, some of which neighbors said they saw piled up outside her residence.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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