A former social worker at a Rhode Island veterans’ hospital received a nearly six-year federal prison sentence Tuesday for using stolen patient information to pose as a cancer-riddled Marine as part of a “massive fraud scheme,” according to officials.
Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 32, who never served in the military, falsely masqueraded over a period of five years as a Purple Heart and Bronze Star-decorated Marine to obtain more than $250,000 in cash, charitable donations and services reserved for injured veterans, according to a release from the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Rhode Island.
The Rhode Island court also ordered Cavanaugh, who claimed to have inhaled matter from an IED explosion in Iraq and to have developed service-related cancer, to pay full restitution to all the victims she perpetrated.
“Sarah Cavanaugh’s conduct in the course of her scheme is nothing short of appalling,” prosecutor Zachary A. Cunha said in the release. “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.”
The fake Marine used her civilian role at the Rhode Island Veterans Affairs Medical Center to misappropriate veterans’ identities, their combat experiences, valor and diagnoses of illnesses to create fraudulent documents and medical records in her own name, indicating that she was an honorably discharged Marine stricken with lung cancer.
Exploiting her false persona, Cavanaugh gained introduction to various individuals and veterans’ charities, which she defrauded, the release said.
In addition to collecting funds for travel to retreats, in-home care, gym memberships, physical therapy and payments for electric bills, Cavanaugh wrongfully obtained months of paid leave from two federal employee benefit programs based on her cancer claims.
She then used her feigned military experience to earn leadership roles in the veteran community, even giving public speeches cosplaying in Marine dress blues with medals she purchased from the internet, the release said.
In one instance, Cavanaugh secured a spot in a therapeutic art program that, as one real veteran told the court, could have gone to another veteran he knew who later died by suicide.
Court documents show Cavanaugh’s scheme began to unravel in January 2022, when a nonprofit she requested assistance from began inquiring about her military past.
The pretend Marine pleaded guilty in August 2022 to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, forged military discharge certificate and fraudulent use of military medals after she was hit with the charges earlier that year.
Her attorney sought more lenient punishment than the sentence of 70 months behind bars and three years of supervised release, arguing that Cavanaugh did not commit the crimes “with malice in her heart or purely for economic benefit,” and that her actions “are much more nuanced than what it appears at first glance,” local outlet WPRI reported.
In court, Cavanaugh apologized for her actions, saying “I will always carry this burden and shame for what I have done, and I accept that,” according to WPRI.
“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 Christopher Algieri, head of the VA’s Office of Inspector General’s Northeast Field Office, said in the court release.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media