SANTA ANA (CNS) - 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, made her initial court appearance today on nearly three dozen criminal charges stemming from the alleged donation scam.
Ashley Kay Bemis was arrested Tuesday, a day after being charged with one count of grand theft, four counts of second-degree burglary and six counts of dissuading a witness from reporting a crime, all felonies, and two dozen misdemeanor fraud counts.
Her arraignment was rescheduled to Friday at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach.
The 28-year-old unmarried defendant allegedly 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 in 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, torched 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.
Sheriff's investigators eventually found other alleged 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. She is not charged in that alleged scam because of statute of limitations issues, but the evidence could be used as part of establishing an alleged pattern and practice of fraud in the current case, 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.