The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She told charities she was a Marine veteran with lung cancer. Prosecutors say she was lying to get money.

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During a dedication ceremony for Rhode Island’s Purple Heart Trail this past August, Sarah Jane Cavanaugh read a poem about an injured service member and spoke of veterans in the crowd who were “unsure of how to exist in the world you’ve returned to,” according to the Chariho Times.

“I have long been one of those veterans — the ones who wish to fly under the radar, who merely did what was asked, when was asked,” added Cavanaugh, then the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 152.

On her uniform, Cavanaugh wore a Purple Heart, a medal awarded to military members who are injured from enemy action. Her story was that she had developed lung cancer from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and had inhaled particulate matter from an explosion in an enemy attack.

But according to a criminal complaint filed this week by the U.S. attorney in Rhode Island, Cavanaugh never served in the Marines. Prosecutors say she purchased the Purple Heart online and used someone else’s military discharge form and forged medical bills to convince veterans’ organizations that she was a wounded veteran who needed help with her living expenses. All told, she collected nearly $250,000, according to prosecutors.

Cavanaugh, 31, was charged with wire fraud, identity theft, using forged military documents and falsely using military medals to obtain money. She was arrested Monday and released on a $50,000 bond, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Attorneys listed for Cavanaugh declined to comment when reached by The Washington Post. Responding to similar allegations published in a Task & Purpose article in February, Cavanaugh denied presenting herself to one of the charities as a Marine veteran battling cancer.

“I do not intend to accept any donations from any charities,” Cavanaugh told Task & Purpose.

Faced with some of the allegations, Cavanaugh stepped down from her post as commander of the VFW Post 152 in January, the Providence Journal reported.

Prosecutors say Cavanaugh took several steps to convince others that she was a wounded military veteran. Perhaps most important was her alleged use of a military discharge certificate, known as a DD-214, which indicated that she served in the Marines from 2009 to 2016 and reached the rank of corporal.

In reality, the certificate belonged to a Marine named Patrick Hurney, prosecutors say. Cavanaugh accessed Hurney’s certificate while working at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence and then changed portions of the form by adding her name, birthday and Social Security number. Other key pieces of information, such as Hurney’s Department of Defense identification number, remained.

Prosecutors say Cavanaugh also purchased a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with a “V” device, a medal given for heroic acts during combat, from a supplier in San Diego.

Cavanaugh reaped thousands of dollars convincing multiple charities and individuals that she was a wounded veteran in need, according to prosecutors. Cavanaugh repeatedly requested donations from Code of Support Foundation, an organization that solicits money from third parties to support veterans, according to the criminal complaint. It helped provide Cavanaugh with more than $10,000 to fix her furnace and $900 for a six-month gym membership, prosecutors say. The organization also helped pay her mortgage and assisted with “unspecified monthly bills,” according to the complaint.

In total, Cavanaugh is accused of collecting more than $18,000 from the organization.

From the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that assists veterans, Cavanaugh received around $207,000, according to prosecutors — all in $500 per month payments for groceries and physical therapy sessions.

In January, another organization found something wrong with Cavanaugh’s paperwork. She had requested help with her medical bills from the HunterSeven Foundation, an organization focused on veteran health, and provided her discharge certificate, prosecutors say. But when HunterSeven tried to verify Cavanaugh’s certificate with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Cavanaugh did not appear in the center’s databases, and there was no evidence she served in the Marines, prosecutors say.

The discovery prompted HunterSeven to contact federal investigators, Task & Purpose reported in February. Having already solicited donations for Cavanaugh via Instagram, the foundation was also forced to issue refunds to donors.

Kate Mannion, a co-host of the military podcast “Zero Blog Thirty,” had found Cavanaugh’s story so compelling that she donated to Cavanaugh and asked others to donate before learning that Cavanaugh was accused of lying.

“I was so wrapped up in the story I didn’t think to Google anything more about her background,” Mannion wrote in an article on Barstool Sports, noting that she later noticed inconsistencies in the way Cavanaugh wore her medals in photos. “Honestly I didn’t even look closely at any of that stuff because WHO … WOULD LIE ABOUT SOMETHING LIKE THIS?”