A Rhode Island woman posed as a US Marine Corps veteran with lung cancer in order to bilk good Samaritans out of $250,000 in donations and services, prosecutors said.
Sarah Cavanaugh, 31, on Tuesday agreed to plead guilty to charges that she forged military documents and even set up a GoFundMe to raise money in her phony fight against stage 4 cancer she claimed was caused by exposure to burn pits in Iraq, court documents show.
Cavanaugh, a social worker, received thousands from groups like the Wounded Warrior Project to pay for expenses including home repairs — and she obtained hundreds of hours’ worth of paid time off due to the faked illness, the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Rhode Island said.
Cavanaugh allegedly used her job to access the medical bills of actual cancer patients, as well as Navy discharge records which she altered for her use. She even joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 152 in North Kingstown and appeared at functions in a borrowed Marine uniform decorated with medals.
She had claimed to be a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, prosecutors said.
Cavanaugh blamed her cancer on the burn pits and from inhaling particulate matter from an explosive — though she never had cancer nor served in the military, court records showed.
The scammer used her fake status and forged records to net hundreds of thousands from veterans groups of people looking to help, including $225,895 from the Wounded Warrior Project and $14,972 in tuition and travel assistance from the group CreatiVets, prosecutors alleged.
She also fraudulently obtained 460 hours of Emergency Paid Leave worth over $20,000, and 261 hours of federal leave time donated by other federal employees for her nonexistent sickness, court records said.
The con artist was busted after two veterans grew suspicious, with one logging into the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute intending to pay a bill for Cavanaugh but finding her account didn’t exist.
Army veteran Chelsey Simoni told The Daily Beast that she then checked with a military contact about Cavanaugh’s record and started to connect the dots.
“They searched and said she never served,” Simoni said. “That night I didn’t sleep at all.”
Cavanaugh, of East Greenwich, is charged with wire fraud, identity theft, forging a military discharge certificate and fraudulent use of military medals. She faces a maximum of 24 years in prison, but as part of the plea agreement prosecutors will recommend a lighter sentence on the low end of sentencing guidelines.
The judge is not bound by the recommendation.