iStock/Thinkstock(LOS ANGELES) — Police are investigating a Southern California woman who allegedly exploited last month's Holy Fire by posing as a fireman’s wife in a scheme to bilk $11,000 from unwitting donors, authorities said.
Ashley Bemis, 28, allegedly posted on a community page on Facebook saying that her husband was fighting the fire that scorched over 23,000 acres in Orange and Riverside counties and requested donations in his honor, according to the Orange County Sheriff's Office.
“My Shane works for Cal Fire and is out on the Holy Fire right now," she allegedly wrote on the page, 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.’"
"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,” the post allegedly added.
The Facebook post has since been deleted. Bemis had not been charged or arrested as of early Tuesday morning and did not immediately respond to an ABC News request for comment.
When sheriffs showed up at Bemis' apartment and garage with a search warrant they found over $11,000 in cash and gifts — all allegedly scammed out of charitable neighbors.
“We believe [she collected these items] knowing she was not taking them to benefit the firefighters,” Carrie Braun, a spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said.
“We took this very seriously because we know that people were donating out of the good of their hearts to a cause that they believed was really going to be going to the people they were donating to. Unfortunately this seemed to be well planned, well organized fraud case,” Braun told ABC News.
Investigators said they were tipped off by suspicious social media users who claimed Bemis had a “long history” of misrepresenting herself to “obtain free items from caring people by making them feel sorry for her,” according to a search warrant obtained by the Orange County sheriff.
“Once she received those items she turned around and sold those items to make a profit from them,” an investigator wrote in the warrant application. “The postings referred to Ashley as a scammer. In less than a week the donations sites all stopped taking items for Ashley because of the alleged fraud.”
One investigator said he spoke with Cal Fire Capt. Tina Brady, who found no record of a firefighter by the name of Shane Goodman in California or anywhere else in the U.S.
She said Bemis’ list included items that firefighters would “never use.” Brady also told police that firefighters deployed to battle the Holy Fire were given “everything they needed,” slept in hotels and they do not take baths using bottled water — as Bemis allegedly claimed in her posts.
No charges have been filed yet against Bemis. Authorities are now asking the public come forward and fill out a questionnaire, detailing anything they may have donated in response to Bemis’ alleged requests for those battling the Holy Fire.
Investigators say they will try to match those questionnaires to the thousands of dollars’ worth of items they found in a garage at her apartment during the search warrant, and present that as evidence to the District Attorney’s office.
“She was really taking advantage of individuals that were coming from a good place … preying on people's willingness to help so we really want to do everything we can to hold her accountable for the things that she's done,” Braun said.
The focus of the investigation is on the Holy Fire Donations — but investigators said they spoke with Bemis and several witnesses who claimed they’d been duped by Bemis in the past.
One woman told police that Bemis once faked a pregnancy and told her that her husband had left the county to take care of sick mother, leaving her alone with no help.
“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,” the witness posted on Facebook, according to court documents.
"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."
The witness said she eventually got Bemis to "admit that it was all a hoax and that she had been wearing a pregnancy suit the whole time," but she refused to return the donations.
Another woman named in the search warrant affidavit tells ABC News she hired Bemis as a nanny for her son in 2011. Less than a year later, “I came across a photo of my son, dressed up as a girl and her claiming that it was her daughter… I was horrified,” Emily Strickland told ABC News.
Strickland told authorities about the ordeal, and says she obtained a restraining order against Bemis, fearing her son would be kidnapped.
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