US judge weighs bail for Pa. kidnap hoax mom

PHILADELPHIA - August 11, 2010

Bonnie Sweeten, a 40-year-old paralegal from Feasterville, faces six years or more in prison if she is convicted of swindling $280,000 from an elderly relative and hundreds of thousands more from the law firm where she worked.

She was moved to federal custody in June, after serving nearly a year on state charges over her staged 911 call.

U.S. District Judge William Yohn Jr. heard arguments Wednesday on whether to grant bail. He didn't immediately rule.

Sweeten's public defender, James McHugh, noted that she surrendered peacefully when the FBI found her and her missing 9-year-old daughter last year at Disney World, days after the hoax call.

But federal prosecutors paint Sweeten as a brazen if imaginative con artist who allegedly convinced her husband she had passed the bar exam and become a lawyer; dummied up a letter from a bank to delay an investigation of her firm's finances; persuaded a colleague to give up her driver's license, so Sweeten could fly to Florida under her name; and repeatedly posed as a doctor's employee to phone in prescriptions.

"She fabricates document after document after document, up until the very end," Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf argued.

McHugh acknowledged the charges are serious, but said Sweeten has gotten counseling in prison and is on the right track.

"I think Ms. Sweeten's actions ... have been headed in the right direction," he said.

Sweeten is appealing the decision of a magistrate who denied bail last month.

Wolf told Yohn that Sweeten has no job or family waiting. Sweeten's second husband - a landscaper who had celebrated her lawyer status with a dinner out and a cake that read "Congratulations!" - filed for divorce after her arrest.

Sweeten's trial is set for November.

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