Ashley Bemis’ Facebook friends thought she needed help.
The 28-year-old said her husband, a firefighter, was battling to contain one of the massive blazes that swept across California in August while she was struggling at home, still reeling from the deaths of three children.
Bemis claimed that she was raising money for firefighters, like her husband, who were battling the Holy Fire as it raged through Orange and Riverside counties, forcing thousands to evacuate. Her situation, often well-documented on Facebook, prompted multiple Good Samaritans to send her more than $2,000 worth of donations, including cash and “items like socks, sports drinks, water, and camping equipment, from individuals, stores and companies,” authorities say.
Little did these donors know that Bemis’ sob story—and supposedly good cause—were nothing more than a scam, authorities allege.
Following a three-month investigation into the 28-year-old’s outlandish claims, Bemis was arrested and charged Tuesday night with felony grand theft, second-degree burglary, witness intimidation, and making false financial statements, police said.
Authorities allege the San Juan Capistrano resident concocted a nonexistent firefighter husband and a trio of fake pregnancies to swindle donors out of thousands of dollars in cash and goods.
“Bemis created the fictitious husband with the intention of soliciting donations to defraud victims,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement. “They also became aware, through additional social media posts from members of the community, of past fraudulent activity by Bemis, including multiple prior faked pregnancies in an attempt to illegally obtain money from unsuspecting victims.”
Authorities say they were first alerted to Bemis on August 17, after a local fire captain saw her posts and became suspicious.
Her posts, both on her personal Facebook page and on a group named San Clemente Life, claimed that she was married to a Cal Fire firefighter named Shane Goodman.
Goodman, Bemis claimed, was working on the front lines of the Holy Fire—which torched more than 23,000 acres—and his crew needed supplies, according to a search warrant affidavit.
“My Shane works for Cal Fire and is out on the Holy Fire right now,” she wrote on Facebook, according to court documents. “I also have two other family members and many friends out on this fire and other fires burning here in California. I received a text today from Shane saying it’s pretty much a living hell out there battling the unpredictable ‘Holy Hell Fire.’”
She added: “I wanted to put it out there to everyone and say I will happily meet you and pick up any donation to the firefighters and first responders that are on the front lines right now.”
Bemis also posted a detailed list of items she alleged Cal Fire fighters needed, such as air mattresses, socks, T-shirts, underwear, bottled water, baby wipes, according to court documents. She even provided the addresses of four drop-off locations in San Clemente.
But her story had inconsistencies—especially when she mentioned the three pregnancies—and victims alerted authorities when they saw items they had donated being resold for profit, court records allege.
In September, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department launched an investigation into Bemis, and her story began to unravel.
“It’s a strange case for sure,” Sheriff’s Department Lt. Mike Peters told The Daily Beast Wednesday. “It just kept growing as investigators turned over new rocks. It was very complicated because of the intricacies of her behavior.”
Investigators quickly learned that there was no firefighter named Shane Goodman who was employed by Cal Fire or any other fire department in the United States, Peters said.
As for the donations, while Bemis did deliver a few of the donated items to the Holy Fire command post in Irvine, searches of her home, vehicle, and garages revealed that hundreds of donated items were secretly stashed in her apartment garage.
“We believe she did that so the the alleged scam appeared legitimate,” he said of her donations to the command post.
In November, Bemis appeared on The Dr. Phil Show, responding to the allegations that she’d been pretending to be the wife of a firefighter.
“It’s true that I’ve been accused of that. That’s not what my goal was,” she said. “I was trying to honestly help the firefighters.”
Investigators also allege that Bemis, a former babysitter, faked three pregnancies in the past to scam people out of money on Facebook.
“My first experience with Ashley was in 2012, when she faked a pregnancy by wearing graduating pregnancy suits for 9 months, claiming that her husband Shane had died of a terminal illness, and that her first 2-year-old child had died of a heart defect,” one of her victims wrote on Facebook, according to court documents.
The post continued: “She was all alone so we all rallied around her, and the ladies even threw her a baby shower, where she gladly accepted our gifts.”
Another victim, Emily Strickland, said she hired Bemis as a nanny for her son in 2010 through an online service, according to court records. About 14 months later, Bemis told Strickland she was pregnant, and while her stomach seemed to be growing, Strickland said she saw Bemis remove a pillow from her clothing one evening.
“It kind of started my suspicions,” she told The Mercury News in September.
Strickland, who is named in a search-warrant affidavit, also alleges that Bemis began taking her son to a local Gymboree, where she told people she was the boy’s mother. She even posted photos of him, sometimes dressed up in girls’ clothing, on two of her Facebook pages, Strickland said.
On Wednesday, Stickland told The Daily Beast she is pleased that Bemis is being “held accountable for her actions.”
“I am happy she is where she belongs so that she can’t victimize others,” she said.
Bemis, who could not be reached for comment, was arrested at her home on Tuesday and booked into the Orange County Jail, where she is being held on $50,000 bail. She is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday.