A Rhode Island woman who for five years used stolen patient information from the veterans’ hospital where she worked to pretend to be a former Marine with cancer and rake in more than $280,000 was sentenced Tuesday to nearly six years in prison.
A U.S. District Court in Providence also ordered Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 32, to pay full restitution for the $284,796.82 in falsely collected benefits, charitable contributions and donations.
Cavanaugh, who never served in the U.S. military, pretended to be a Purple Heart- and Bronze Star-decorated Marine Corps veteran, claiming to have been wounded by an IED in Iraq and to have developed cancer from burn pits and other service-related activity. She attended public events in full uniform, wearing a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star she purchased and allowing herself to be introduced to friends, charities, businesses and organizations she then exploited or defrauded, according to court documents.
She was finally exposed early last year when a charity she applied to for funds checked her background.
Cavanaugh was charged in March 2022 and pleaded guilty in August to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, using a forged military discharge certificate and fraudulently using military medals to obtain money, property or other tangible benefits.
Court documents describe Cavanaugh’s actions as “among the more reprehensible seen in this District from a fraud defendant,” for deceiving veterans, veterans’ organizations and charities, friends and co-workers in a “methodical and calculated manner.”
“Sarah Cavanaugh’s conduct in the course of her scheme is nothing short of appalling,” U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha said in a statement. “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.”
While Cavanaugh did not serve in the military, she did work as a licensed social worker for the Department of Veterans Affairs at the Rhode Island Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence. While there, she used the documents, medical records and personal information of an actual veteran with cancer to create forged documents and records in her name.
Those fraudulent papers said she had been honorably discharged and had cancer, allowing her to collect more than $225,000 from the Wounded Warrior Project and thousands more from eight other charities.
Combined, the dollars funded Cavanaugh’s travel to retreats, in-home care, gym memberships, physical therapy, paying an electric bill, and provided donated gift cards for use for groceries and other essentials, according to the Department of Justice.
She also gained months of paid leave from two federal employee benefit programs.
What’s more, Cavanaugh assumed leadership roles in the veteran community, joining the Veterans of Foreign Wars and securing a spot in an arts program at the University of Southern California meant for veterans known as CreatiVets.
Cavanaugh’s defense had sought a two-year sentence, but instead, she was sentenced to 70 months in prison with three years of federal supervised release after.