An R.I. woman got more than $250K in charity because she said she was a Marine veteran with cancer. It was all a lie.

Sarah Cavanaugh, 32, never served in Afghanistan or Iraq. On Tuesday, a judge ordered her to serve a nearly six-year-long prison sentence.

Sarah Jane Cavanaugh posed as a Marine combat veteran with a Purple Heart and Bronze star at a dedication ceremony for the Purple Heart Trail in Rhode Island.
Sarah Jane Cavanaugh posed as a Marine combat veteran with a Purple Heart and Bronze star at a dedication ceremony for the Purple Heart Trail in Rhode Island. The Independent newspaper/US District Court of Rhode Island

A Rhode Island woman who falsely claimed to be a Marine Corps veteran suffering from cancer — and who used her fraud to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable donations and help — was sentenced to nearly six years in prison on Tuesday.

More on this case:

Sarah Cavanaugh, 32, pleaded guilty in August to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, forgery, and fraudulent use of medals.

In Providence, Chief U.S. District Judge John J. McConnell Jr. sentenced Cavanaugh to five years and 10 months in prison — the sentence requested by federal prosecutors. McConnell also ordered she pay restitution totaling $284,796.82 to all of her victims.


Cavanaugh forged records she accessed through her job as a social worker at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center to build up the fabrications that she was a decorated veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, The Boston Globe reports.

Her lies propelled her into serving as the commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in North Kingstown and got her more than $250,000 in charity support, from yoga classes and retreats to an in-home caretaker, according to the newspaper.

She also took in over $5,000 from an actual military veteran with cancer.

“She preyed on people’s compassion, their sympathy, and their goodheartedness,” federal prosecutor Ronald Gendron said.

Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha called Cavanaugh’s conduct “nothing short of appalling.”

How the fraud unfolded

According to the Globe, the lies began soon after Cavanaugh began working at the VA in 2015.

She claimed she was a veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, complete with a V device, which denotes heroism. Cavanaugh also said she had a traumatic brain injury due to an attack from an improvised explosive device and said she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

She told those around her that exposure to burn pits while serving overseas and the particles from the IED had given her cancer, the Globe reports.


She used her VA email to obtain medals: She requested a shipment of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star from a company in San Diego. To back up her claims with records, she gained access to a VA patient’s own DD 214 form — paperwork veterans receive upon leaving the military — and swapped out the name.

Cavanaugh also befriended a military veteran, Justin Hsu, at the VFW Post 152 in North Kingstown.

Hsu has stage 4 lung cancer — and Cavanaugh told him she did, too, according to the Globe. Cavanaugh eventually was able to access Hsu’s VA medical records and altered them to help carry out her fraud.

Then, Cavanaugh told Hsu she needed help with her medical bills.

In turn, Hsu gave her more than $5,000 for the treatment she allegedly needed.

“I don’t know what kind of person can do that to someone with a terminal illness,” Hsu said in court Tuesday.

Cavanaugh benefitted from the generosity of nine veterans’ charities — money that funded “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,” prosecutors said in a statement.

“Cavanaugh also used false documentation to fraudulently obtain months of paid leave from two federal employee benefit programs based on her cancer claims,” officials said.


Cavanaugh spent the cash on gifts for her girlfriend, trips, and expensive clothes, the Globe reports.

Additionally, Cavanaugh gave public speeches while donning a full Marine uniform and landed 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,” prosecutors said.

“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,'” officials said.

According to the Globe, the five-year scheme came to light when Cavanaugh tried to receive funding through the nonprofit HunterSeven Foundation.

The organization looked into Cavanaugh’s background and reached out to the VA, who, in turn, called VA police when the agency couldn’t find proof of Cavanaugh’s claims, the newspaper reports.

What Cavanaugh said in court

Through her attorney, Cavanaugh had sought a prison sentence of two years and a day.

She told the judge on Tuesday she was sorry.

“All I ask is that you allow me a chance to rebuild my life in a way that is healthy and helpful,” Cavanaugh said, according to the Globe.

Her attorney, Kensley Barrett, a veteran, acknowledged Cavanaugh’s actions were unacceptable, but made the argument they were tied to trauma she suffered in her childhood.

However, McConnell, the judge, said the sexual abuse Cavanaugh allegedly suffered in her past did not provide a complete explanation as to why she made the claims she did.


“Sarah Cavanaugh feigned having cancer, and falsely claimed valor where there was none, to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits and charitable donations,” Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division, said in a statement. “Her actions are an insult to every veteran who has served our country, and today she learned her fate for her criminal conduct.”


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