A North Philadelphia woman who became an internet sensation after hosting lavish events including a 2017 Dubai-theme prom send-off for her son — featuring foreign luxury cars, three tons of sand, and even a rented camel — said she put on the over-the-top parties to give her community a break from poverty and violence.
But on Wednesday, it was Saudia Shuler herself who received the break when a federal judge spared her from prison during her sentencing for government benefit fraud.
U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez ordered the 44-year-old, who became known as “Camel Prom Mom,” to serve six months’ house arrest and three years’ probation — a punishment far less severe than the prison term of four to 10 months called for by federal guidelines.
While noting the seriousness of her crime — collecting $37,000 in disability payments over four years to which she was not entitled — the judge concluded that Shuler’s charity-focused fetes served as a “force of good, uplifting people and not putting them down.”
In addition to house arrest, he ordered Shuler to complete 100 hours of community service and pay back the money.
“I see someone with tremendous potential to do a lot of good, not only for her child but for other members of the community,” Sanchez said. “I do think she is genuinely remorseful. I accept her explanation. I think she is sincere.”
For her court appearance Wednesday, Shuler eschewed the blinged-out party costumes that rocketed her to internet notoriety — although she did stop on her way into the courthouse to snap a picture in her conservative black pantsuit for Instagram.
Standing before the judge, she insisted that her posh parties were never paid for with stolen government funds.
“It’s not that I have a lot of money or that I have a lot of resources,” she told the judge in front of a courtroom packed with supporters. “But I do know a lot of people that will help. I’m actually embarrassed that I’m standing in front of you — in front of my community.”
The circumstances that landed Shuler in court came quickly on the heels of her rise as an internet celebrity.
She was indicted last year one month after hosting another prom send-off, based on the movie Black Panther and featuring a caged panther, a catered dinner, fashion consultants, and actors dressed in costumes representing the mythical African nation of Wakanda featured in the film.
It was one of 24 events she said she hosted that year, including a Cinderella-theme send-off with a horse-drawn carriage and a James Bond homage complete with helicopter ride for young prom dates. The total tab, Shuler said at the time, was above six figures.
She told the court Wednesday that she covered the costs by soliciting community donations.
But while her lawyer played a video of her greatest hits — including footage from parties with themes like “Hood Fairy Tale” and a Christmas toy giveaway complete with a gyrating, hip-hop Santa — prosecutors sought to puncture her image as a community role model.
She may have lawfully begun to receive disability benefits after a series of ailments, but she failed to notify the government once her circumstances changed, they said.
Between 2014 and 2018, Shuler continued to report that she was bedridden and unable to prepare her own meals even as she launched Country Cookin’, a North Philadelphia restaurant that served as a hub for her charitable events. And although she may not have spent her disability funds on her parties, prosecutors maintained that she gambled much of it away on frequent trips to SugarHouse Casino.
“Saudia Shuler is not a folk hero or a neighborhood champion. She is an admitted thief who stole money from taxpayers in order to fund elaborate parties and enhance her own reputation,” U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said in a statement after the sentencing.
He added, "Shame on her for taking money out of the pockets of people who actually depend on Social Security just to get by: the elderly, disabled and other vulnerable people, some of whom live in Shuler’s North Philadelphia neighborhood.“
Still, the more than 50 people who showed up to support Shuler refused to be swayed. Several of them, including some of the teen beneficiaries of Shuler’s prom night largesse, pleaded for leniency from the court.
Nieme Brooker, a graduate of Penn Wood High School, told Sanchez that he received a prom package worth $20,000 from Shuler — including two custom suits, hair styling and makeup services for his date, and a luxury car to escort them to the party — after winning an essay contest Shuler sponsored.
“Without her assistance I would have been able to attend the prom, but it would not have been nothing like what Ms. Saudia did for me,” he said.
But it was another internet celebrity who brought many in the courtroom to tears. Before his release from prison a little more than two years ago, Wallace Peebles built a social media following of more than 500,000 with a contraband cellphone and a covert Instagram account under the screen name “Wallo267.”
He said Wednesday that he had deserved prison for his crimes. Shuler, he told Sanchez, did not.
“We come from a place where hurt people hurt people,” he said. “There’s a lot of boys and girls who don’t have a mother. They don’t have love. She’s a deliverer of love.”