A Rhode Island woman who posed as a decorated war veteran with cancer was sentenced on Tuesday to six years in prison after fraudulently collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits and aid.
Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 32, has been ordered by a U.S. District Court in Providence to pay back nearly US$300,000 she amassed after stealing the identity of a real former Marine with cancer and forging documents in her name. She was first charged in March 2022 and in August pleaded guilty to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, forging a military discharge certificate and fraudulent use of military medals.
In addition to the 70-month sentence, Cavanaugh will spend three years on supervised release.
In a press release announcing her sentencing, the U.S. Department of Justice said Cavanaugh engaged in “near-daily criminal conduct over a period of five years” in a “methodical and calculated manner.”
Cavanaugh was a social worker at a Rhode Island veterans’ hospital and used her access to a patient’s documents to create counterfeit medical records and military documents for herself. Prosecutors said Cavanaugh even asked the veteran whose information she stole to help her pay for cancer treatments, which he agreed to.
The real veteran, who was only identified in court papers by his initials, paid Cavanaugh nearly US$600 per month, an act that “plumbed the depths of moral depravity,” prosecutors said.
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As part of her grift, Cavanaugh attended public events in uniform where she spoke about the struggles veterans face, bought a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star to wear, and was even named commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
She accepted more than US$225,000 from the Wounded Warrior Project alone to help pay for yoga classes, gym membership, groceries and physical therapy, among other things, according to prosecutors. She received thousands more from other programs and charities.
“Sarah Cavanaugh’s conduct in the course of her scheme is nothing short of appalling,” U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha said in a statement. “By brazenly laying claim to the honor, service, and sacrifice of real veterans, this defendant preyed on the charity and decency of others for her own shameless financial gain.”
Cavanaugh said she served in the Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2009 until 2016, rose to the rank of corporal, and was being treated for lung cancer as a result of exposure to burn pits and from inhaling particulate matter from a bomb explosion, according to authorities.
In early 2022, Cavanaugh’s lies were exposed when a charity she applied to for funds became suspicious and started checking her background.
The HunterSeven Foundation, which helps veterans with cancer, contacted the Providence Veterans Affairs (VA) about Cavanaugh’s claims in part because another Marine told them that she would have known about Cavanaugh if she had truly served when she said she did and received a Bronze Star for valour.
“Today’s sentencing sends a strong message to those who would represent themselves as something they’re not in order to profit from the kindness and respect shown to our nation’s deserving veterans,” said Christopher Algieri, head of the VA’s Office of Inspector General’s Northeast Field Office.
Cavanaugh’s lawyer, Kensley Barrett, had sought a much lower two-year sentence, citing her lack of criminal history, her low risk of reoffending and the “significant price” she has already paid through public disgrace, the loss of her professional licence, the breakup of her marriage and even online death threats.
— with files from The Associated Press