A Rhode Island woman was charged in federal court Monday with fraudulently claiming to be a U.S. Marine Corps veteran with lung cancer in a scheme to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in veterans benefits and charitable contributions.
Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha said Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 31, of Warwick, is charged with using forged or counterfeited military discharge certificates, wire fraud, fraudulently holding herself out to be a medal recipient with intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit, and aggravated identity theft.
There is no record of Cavanaugh ever serving in the U.S. military, Cunha said.
Cavanaugh appeared in U.S. District Court in Providence and was released on a $50,000 unsecured bond. Her attorney did not immediately respond to an email request for comment and the firm, Marin and Barrett, Inc., told a reporter who called that they were busy Monday dealing with current client issues that need undivided attention.
Cavanaugh worked at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence. She's accused of accessing the records for a Marine who utilizes VA services and using them to falsify military discharge documents, and also using her work email to purchase and later display on a Marine uniform a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, according to court documents.
Cavanaugh did so to request financial assistance and falsely claim that she was being treated for lung cancer from exposure to burn pits in war zones and inhaling particulate matter from a bomb explosion, Cunha said.
Posing as a combat veteran, Cavanaugh collected $207,000 from the Wounded Warrior program to pay for groceries and physical therapy, collected about $18,500 in financial assistance from “Code of Support” in Virginia for mortgage payments, repairs to her home furnace, a gym membership and other bills, and $4,700 from a fundraising website, Cunha said.
Claiming to be a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient, Cavanaugh collected $16,000 from another charity that provides therapy for veterans through art programs, CreatiVets, according to court documents.
An investigation was launched after the Providence nonprofit HunterSeven contacted the Providence VA because they were suspicious of Cavanaugh's appeal to them. The organization helps veterans with cancer.
Executive Director Chelsey Simoni said Monday they had issued a $3,000 check to Cavanaugh in January but canceled it once they realized she was lying about service, in part because another female Marine told them that she would've known about Cavanaugh if they served at the same time and Cavanaugh truly did earn a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for valor.
Simoni said that what upsets her most is that Cavanaugh took up time she could've used to help veterans who do have cancer.
"I was in pain for her. I listened to her, everything a nurse should do," she said. “She not only abused that, she took my compassion and lied. Meanwhile we could have put our services elsewhere. That's what bothers me."