PROVIDENCE — A Rhode Island woman who lied about being a cancer-stricken decorated Marine combat veteran was arrested Monday on federal charges of fraud involving more than $200,000 from charities.
Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 31, who had been the commander of North Kingstown Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 152 until the allegations surfaced in late January, was arraigned in US District Court on four felony charges.
The US attorney’s office is charging her with using another person’s military discharge certificate, the DD-214 form, aggravated ID theft, fraudulently holding herself out as a recipient of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and using communications in furtherance of fraudulent activities.
Cavanaugh had allegedly used the discharge certificate of an actual Marine, who is now a civilian working for the US Navy in Newport, R.I., and who had happened to visit the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence where she was working. The discharge certificate had been falsified with her name.
“In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seldom seen a fraudulence scheme so wide-ranging,” Assistant US Attorney Ronald Gendron told Magistrate Judge Lincoln D. Almond. “It seemed any pot of money out there that she placed her hands on, she used fraud to try to acquire it.”
Cavanaugh’s defense attorney, Kensley Barrett, said she was trying to sell her home in Warwick for restitution for the alleged victims.
Almond released Cavanaugh on $50,000 unsecured bond, saying he did not believe she was a danger to the community, with supervision by court pretrial services. The magistrate ordered Cavanaugh into mental health treatment, to not possess weapons, and not to travel outside of Rhode Island.
Cavanaugh’s alleged schemes were first uncovered by some of the people and organizations that help veterans in need — because they’d believed at first that she was one of them.
Kate Mannion, co-host of the podcast Zero Blog Thirty, first revealed the alleged deception on her Jan. 31 show. Mannion said she had sent the HunterSeven Foundation a donation for the woman, whom she believed had been wounded by a roadside bomb blast.
Cavanaugh had told a story about serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, then being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in September 2019. Cavanaugh’s description of metallic particles in her lung, specific to a blast from an improvised explosive device, sounded similar to stories of other military personnel who’d been injured in battle and suffered from cancer, Mannion said.
Mannion said HunterSeven sent her a letter and was returning her donation to Cavanaugh, saying that “everything was a lie.”
Marine Major Thomas Schueman, founder of the nonprofit veterans’ group Patrol Base Abbate, told Task & Purpose that Cavanaugh told him she was dying of cancer from toxic exposure to burn pits. Schueman said that Cavanaugh showed him with a DD-214 that was ultimately found to be riddled with disparities.
Cavanaugh wasn’t a Marine and wasn’t suffering from cancer, but she used those stories to defraud well-intentioned people near and far, Gendron said.
“These are people that trusted her, that she met on a daily basis sometimes, face to face. Sometimes they were employees, people who she may have met through her fraudulent acceptance in the VFW, people she met through charities. She purported to be a Marine who was injured while serving the country in combat and had cancer,” he said.
Through the investigation that began with questions from HunterSeven, Special Agent Thomas Donnelly of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of the Inspector General uncovered an alleged web of lies.
Cavanaugh had used the ID of an actual Marine — a man who is now working as a civilian with the US Navy in Newport, according to an affidavit supporting an arrest warrant. The former Marine told Donnelly that he recognized his signature on the discharge certificate that Cavanaugh was passing off as her own.
With his ID, Cavanaugh claimed she had served from 2009 to 2016, was wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had been honorably discharged as a corporal, the affidavit said.
A search of the Defense Personnel Records Information Retrieval System, a database containing military-service records, provided no records or information pertaining to Cavanaugh.
She allegedly used an e-mail account with the Veterans Administration Medical Center, where she was an employee, to buy Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals that she pinned to a Marine dress uniform and wore at veterans events.
The investigation found that Cavanaugh created and submitted falsified military discharge documents, medical diagnosis, and medical bills to HunterSeven to get financial assistance.
HunterSeven checked into Cavanaugh’s background and discovered she wasn’t who she said she was, which launched the federal investigation.
But others fell for her stories, the federal authorities found.
Cavanaugh collected $207,000 from the Wounded Warrior organization to pay for groceries and physical therapy. She collected $16,000 from a charity that provides therapy for veterans through art programs. She collected another $4,700 from a GoFundMe.
And “Code of Support” gave Cavanaugh $18,472 in financial assistance for her mortgage payments, repairs to her home furnace, a gym membership, and other bills, according to the affidavit.
The Rhode Island Department of the Veterans of Foreign Wars disavowed Cavanaugh. The organization said in a statement Monday that it takes fraud and stolen valor seriously and that her actions were not a reflection of the VFW or its members.