A Rhode Island woman who lied about being an injured Marine Corps veteran diagnosed with cancer was sentenced to nearly six years in prison and ordered to pay back full restitution on Tuesday.
Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 32, collected more than $250,000 in charitable contributions, veteran benefits, and donations during her stolen valor run.
“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 fraudster, whose stolen valor stint lasted over five years, acquired Marine Corps service uniforms to wear to public events and speeches while displaying a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor in combat on her chest.
Cavanaugh claimed she served in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2009 until 2016 and had been wounded by an IED (improvised explosive device) while serving in Iraq.
She claimed burn pits and inhaling particulate matter from an explosive caused her lung cancer.
Nine veterans’ charities dished out funds to Cavanaugh, which she used to pay for physical therapy, in-home care, retreats, gym membership and electric bills, and even gift cards for groceries and other essentials.
Cavanaugh received $207,000 from the Wounded Warriors Project between 2017 and 2021, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general’s office.
In an impact statement submitted to the court, a veteran that Cavanaugh met through the Wounded Warrior Project slammed the scammer, saying she took a therapeutic veterans art program that could have been used by a veteran in need of care.
The unidentified veteran revealed that a friend — who was also a veteran — applied for the spot but was denied and ultimately took their own life, the court document shows.
Cavanaugh raised $4,700 while fundraising funds to help pay for medical bills caused by the fabricated injury.
Cavanaugh pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft, forged military discharge certificates, fraudulent use of military medals, and four counts of wire fraud in July 2022.
“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,” US Attorney Zachary A. Cunha said in a statement.
Suspicion of her false identity did not arise until early 2022.
The HunterSeven Foundation — a veteran-based charitable organization — conducted a background check into her military service after she applied for funds and discovered she was a social worker for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence.
Cavanaugh’s lawyer, Kensley Barrett, had sought a lower sentence, citing her lack of criminal history and the “significant price” she has paid through humiliation.
She initially faced a maximum sentence of 24 years before her plea agreement.