PROVIDENCE, R.I. – A woman in Rhode Island who never served in the military engaged in an elaborate case of stolen valor fraud by lying about being an injured Marine Corps veteran who was diagnosed with cancer. The crime went on for years before it was discovered. The perpetrator, Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, pleaded guilty August 9, 2022, to four counts of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, forged military discharge certificate, and fraudulent use of military medals. She was sentenced Tuesday to nearly six years in prison and ordered to pay full restitution for her crimes.
During the ongoing stolen valor hoax, which lasted more than five years, Cavanaugh, 32, masqueraded as a Purple Heart and Bronze Star-decorated U.S. Marine who claimed to have been wounded by an IED in Iraq and to have developed service-related cancer. The grifter’s daily crimes allowed her to collect more than $250,000 in charitable contributions and veteran benefits, the New York Post reported.
“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,” Special Agent in Charge Christopher Algieri of the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General’s Northeast Field Office said in a statement.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Rhode Island provided the following details:
Court documents detail Ms. Cavanaugh’s “repugnant” criminal activity: falsely purporting to be a combat-injured veteran allowed her to gain introduction to, and acceptance by, friends, charities, businesses, and organizations whom she then exploited and/or defrauded. Nine veterans’ charities combined to fund Cavanaugh’s travel to retreats, in-home care, gym memberships, physical therapy, paying electric bills, and provided donated gift cards for use in obtaining groceries and other essentials. Cavanaugh also used false documentation to fraudulently obtain months of paid leave from two federal employee benefit programs based on her cancer claims.
Even more brazenly, Cavanaugh exploited her purported experiences to assume leadership roles in the veteran community, including as commander of a VFW Post in North Kingstown, RI; gave public speeches while dressed in full U.S. Marine uniform, complete with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star that she purchased on the internet; and secured a spot in an arts program at the University of Southern California, a program she described to a U.S. Army veteran she met through the Wounded Warrior Program who was later accepted into the program. In a letter to the court, the Army veteran faulted Cavanaugh for taking “a spot [in the program] from another veteran who could have participated in the program and, ultimately, may not have committed suicide.”
Cavanaugh was named commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in North Kingstown, RI. (VFW Dept. of Rhode Island/Facebook)
In total, nine veterans’ charities dished out money to Cavanaugh, including $207,000 from the Wounded Warriors Project between 2017 and 2021, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General’s Office.
She also received $4,700 in charitable gifts while fundraising to help pay for non-existent medical bills caused by the fabricated injury.
Cavanaugh never served in any branch of the U.S. military. (Youtube/Inside Edition)
Suspicion of her false persona did not arise until early 2022. A veteran-based charitable organization called The HunterSeven Foundation conducted a background check into her military service record when she applied for funds. They discovered she was simply a social worker for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence and had never served in any branch of the U.S. military.
Cavanaugh faced a maximum of 24 years in prison before receiving a nearly six-year sentence for the intricate, ongoing scam.
“Sarah Cavanaugh’s conduct in the course of her scheme is nothing short of appalling,” remarked U.S. Attorney Zachary A. Cunha. “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. I am grateful that, with today’s sentence, she has been brought to justice and will face the consequences of her actions.”
“Individuals who falsely represent themselves as decorated veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces degrades the service of the men and women who selflessly serve our country,” said Patrick J. Hegarty, Special Agent in Charge of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service Northeast Field Office, the law enforcement component of the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General. “Profiting from such an egregious scheme is an affront to the U.S. military’s long-standing tradition of honoring and awarding its brave service members. Today’s sentencing demonstrates our commitment to work with our law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate allegations of stolen valor.”
“Sarah Cavanagh feigned having cancer, and falsely claimed valor where there was none, to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits and charitable donations. Her actions are an insult to every veteran who has served our country, and today she learned her fate for her criminal conduct,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Boston Division. “Make no mistake, the FBI and our law enforcement partners are committed to seeking justice for anyone who lies about serving our country and illegally takes money from federal programs that help veterans who rightfully deserve it.”