Saudia Shuler, also known as the Camel Prom Mom, is the most colorful character to come out of Philly in a long, long time.

Her 2017 “Saudi Claus Comes to Norf Philly" party was epic, and looked more like a scene from a music video than a block party in a struggling, depressed neighborhood.

She had live reindeer. Green‐suited elves twerking in the middle of North 22nd Street. A deejay blaring hip-hop. A Grinch. And hundreds of people in the street. Maybe more than 1,000 presents, including bicycles and child-size luxury cars that kids could drive. Shuler presided over it all from a golden throne.

This holiday circus took place outside her business, Country Cookin’ - a soul food takeout in the 2800 block of North 22nd. North Philly — heck, the entire city — had never seen a Christmas party like it.

So excuse me for hoping Shuler doesn’t have to do jail time for cheating the government.

Yes, I know she defrauded the Social Security Administration by accepting all of those payments over the years that she wasn’t entitled to. That was straight‐up foul. Fraud like that costs taxpayers billions each year. Shuler’s going to have to be punished for that, but I’m crossing my fingers that she’ll be spared jail time.

Shuler is clearly far from perfect, but she’s helped a lot of people in her North Philly neighborhood who’ve gotten toys during the holidays, or a book bag at one of her annual back‐to‐school giveaways. A Robin Hood-type figure, she’s deeply flawed but beloved by many.

Saudia Shuler, left, dressed as "Saudi Claus," helps Averie Love, 11, pick out a new bicycle during a Christmas toy giveaway in front of Shuler's restaurant, Country Cookin, in North Philadelphia on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Saudia Shuler, left, dressed as "Saudi Claus," helps Averie Love, 11, pick out a new bicycle during a Christmas toy giveaway in front of Shuler's restaurant, Country Cookin, in North Philadelphia on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017.

She goes all out for her ’hood. In 2017, she famously hired a camel and trucked in three tons of sand just for her son’s elaborate Dubai-theme prom send-off. Shuler followed that up by doing two dozen more prom send-offs the next year, including an elaborately choreographed Wakanda-theme one based off Black Panther. And she topped herself by renting a black panther for the event.

Helicopter rides for prom couples. Ballgowns and designer duds, too. That kind of extravagance comes with a huge price tag — one considerably higher than her soul food platters alone could finance. She claims she gets a whole lot in donations of products and services. That’s her story. Is it really enough to finance all she does? I honestly don’t know.

On Tuesday, the 44‐year‐old entrepreneur pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges, admitting that she collected nearly $37,000 in Social Security benefits between 2014 and 2018. U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez came down hard on her during Tuesday’s hearing, saying, “You could go to jail for 30 years. Do you understand that?”

It’s likely, though, that Shuler won’t get anything near that.

“What the judge was explaining to her was the statutory maximum for all of the charges that she was pleading guilty to,” said her attorney, Tariq El‐Shabazz. “By law, when someone changes their plea … the court is obligated to explain to them what the maximum statutory sentence is. The statutory maximum simply means that that’s the highest that someone can get. It doesn’t mean that that’s what you’re going to get.”

He added, “No one knows what the sentence is going to be at this particular time. That’s what the hearing is for."

Her sentencing is scheduled for May. When I reached Shuler on Tuesday, she was uncharacteristically mute, saying quietly, “I just want it to be over,” before hanging up the phone.

I hung up feeling sad for her — and then I got mad as I thought of all the bankers who nearly brought the economy to its knees during the 2008 financial crisis, and how they managed to avoid jail time. And what about current elected officials who’ve played all kinds of nasty financial games with their taxes or whatever, yet managed to continue in their jobs?

What Shuler has admitted to doing is egregious, but small potatoes in comparison.