In fact, unknown to Smith, police detectives were already working to talk to her medical providers. And she was indeed faking it, police say.
Smith was arrested Monday in Chester County, Pa., and charged with raising more than $10,000 on GoFundMe and Facebook by pleading for help paying for medical bills that didn’t exist.
The case is the latest to allege fraud in the booming online crowdfunding world, which has attracted notable scammers, such as a nearby New Jersey couple charged last year with stealing more than $400,000 with a fake story of a homeless veteran helping them during a roadside emergency.
Before her arrest, Smith made waves in Philadelphia-area media with her dramatic tales of overcoming devastating illnesses to become a competitive powerlifter, a sport mostly dominated by men. In a March interview with the Philly Voice, the heavily tattooed lifter ticked off a litany of physical setbacks, from a double hip replacement to a rare heart condition to a cancer-related hysterectomy.
“Two weeks ago, I had a baseball-sized mass removed from my abdomen,” she casually noted. “I’ve been through more in 32 years than anyone will probably experience, and I still push through and still get the job done."
In June, she added another ailment to that list: a rare form of hereditary colon cancer. In the online fundraisers she set up under her maiden name, Jessica Cornell, she said the disease saddled her with “tremendous medical bills” and “travel costs,” according to a police report.
On Facebook, she created a snappy hashtag — #FightLikeAJessica — and started selling $25 weightlifting-themed T-shirts with the phrase: “Crush Kilos and Cancer.”
The response was astounding, she told the podcast hosts in August.
“My GoFundMe hit 100 donors and I was like, ‘I don’t even like 10 people, let alone know 100.’ So I know a lot of these people are just random people who have heard about my story that are stepping up,” she said. “I got a crazy anonymous large donation and I was like, ‘Wow!’ It’s wild.”
Those close to Smith had serious doubts about her claims from the start, though — including her husband.
Robert Smith went to police in Uwchlan Township, a town about 35 miles west of Philadelphia, on July 31 to file a report, just over a month after an acquaintance of the couple had first alerted police to Smith’s questionable fundraising. He told authorities that “to the best of his knowledge, his wife does not have cancer of any form,” according to a police report. He also went through every medical record in their house and couldn’t find any evidence of the dire diagnosis, he told police.
But Robert Smith did find one document that he handed over to police: A form supposedly signed by a USA Powerlifting doctor confirming that his wife had colon cancer. But when police called up that doctor, he denied that she had any cancer.
While investigators waited for local hospitals to respond to search warrants on her medical files, Smith went to police herself to report “online harassment and bullying” by people calling her a fraud on her fundraising sites. She voluntarily sat for an interview on Sept. 12, describing her supposed illness, naming the doctors treating her and handing over several documents to police that she said confirmed the diagnosis.
That story quickly fell apart, police said. The doctor she said was providing her chemotherapy told police he’d only ever treated her for anemia. The surgeon she said had removed “16 inches” of her colon wasn’t working at the hospital where she said she had the procedure.
And when police eventually obtained more than 300 pages of her medical files, there was no mention of a cancer diagnosis, according to a police report.
Smith was arraigned Monday on charges of receiving stolen property and theft by deception. She faces a preliminary hearing Nov. 12. It’s not clear from court records who is representing her.
Reis Thebault contributed to this story.