7 people who allegedly faked cancer for personal gain

The Week
Brittany Ozarowski claimed she had cancer — allegedly to score donations to help feed her heroine addiction.
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Brittany Ozarowski claimed she had cancer — allegedly to score donations to help feed her heroine addiction.

It's pretty hard to get any lower than this

No one wants cancer. In fact, there are many, many people who dedicate their lives to figuring out how to eradicate it from this world. Which is why, perhaps, we unquestioningly believe and do anything for those who are affected by the deadly disease. You'd have to be pretty low to lie about something like that. And yet...

1. The woman who allegedly faked cancer to fund her heroin habit
Brittany Ozarowski was supposedly diagnosed in September 2011 with stage two ovarian cancer as well as stomach cancer. Three months later, the Medford, N.Y., resident miraculously beat the odds and her disease — only to see it return in the form of bone and brain cancer. The 21-year-old set up a website (which included the tagline "Help Save My Life") and a donation-seeking Facebook page, placed donation jars in 25 local business, and held several fundraisers. But the money she reaped funded not her treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering but, allegedly, her heroine habit. Ozarowski's grandmother sold her home and gave her granddaughter $100,000. Her father reportedly depleted his retirement account. But onetime well wishers grew suspicious of the suspected con artist when she kept refusing assistance to get to her doctors appointments. Ozarowski was arrested on April 1 and is in jail, pending bond. She is charged with grand larceny and perpetrating a scheme to defraud.

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2. The woman who faked cancer to raise money for breast implants
Jami Lynn Toler revealed to her family, friends, and Hallmark Hospice co-workers that she had breast cancer and would be undergoing a double mastectomy and breast reconstructive surgery. Her mother set up a website for her 27-year-old daughter in 2011 to collect donations for the surgeries. Toler reportedly raked in more than $8,000 for her cause. Except there was no cancer eating away at her body. Instead, there was only the desperate need for a breast augmentation. The Phoenix woman was arrested, and pleaded guilty to the charges. As part of a plea agreement, Toler was sentenced in September 2012 to one year in jail, and she will also get three years' probation and have to pay restitution.

3. The man who faked breast cancer to avoid his parole officer
In 2005, Brian Jeffrey Bonniwell was arrested on a burglary charge and sentenced to 10 years of probation. The Texas man had to meet with his probation officer once a month but apparently by 2011 had grown tired of the commitment. During his July meeting he presented his officer with a letter that said he had been diagnosed with breast cancer and would be undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He would no longer be able to attend the meetings. Unfortunately, the letter persuaded few, and a subpoena was issued to Texas Oncology South Austin for Bonniwell's medical records only to find — surprise — no record of him at all.

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4. The woman who faked pancreatic cancer to distract from her embezzlement scheme
It was around 2007 that the management of the Imperial Point Animal Hospital in South Florida began to worry about the company's financial state. The numbers weren't adding up. But when the bosses went to Kelly Lisa Duncan for answers, they were distracted by a new horror: Duncan had pancreatic cancer. For three years, veterinarian Robert Buzzetti and his wife, Gina, stood by their colleague's side as she went through her ordeal. It was odd, though. Her worst medical issues seemed to flare up whenever Buzzetti asked to review payroll. Finally, her act unraveled in 2010 when she was caught doctoring the payroll records. The cancer Duncan claimed to have was indeed just a distraction from the embezzlement scheme she had been hard at work at since 2004. Over six years, she had siphoned off at least $647,800 from her employer. In 2011, the 46-year-old was arrested and pleaded guilty to mail fraud. At the time, she faced a maximum of 41 months in jail.

5. The mother who faked her son's cancer to reap medical benefits
In 2008, British mom Emma La Garde took her son to a doctor after he complained of pains in his legs. The 7-year-old's tests were clear, but the event inspired La Garde to orchestrate a medical drama for her son that would go on for four years. The mother of five forged medical documents, shaved her son's hair and eyebrows, and made him use a wheelchair in public and at school. At first she said the boy was suffering from an autoimmune disease, but two years later she escalated his illness to lymphoma. With this ruse she managed to earn tax exemptions and disability benefits, and also qualified for funding as an at-home caretaker. She managed to scam more than $130,000, and reportedly used some of the money to fund lavish vacations, including one to Disney World, where she would push her wheelchair-bound son to the front of the line. She was eventually caught and charged with one count of child cruelty and eight counts of fraud, among other things. In November 2012, she was sent to prison for three years and eight months.

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6. The woman who faked leukemia to fund her lavish wedding
In 2010, Jessica Vega began telling friends, family, and her upstate New York community that she was dying of leukemia. In the months she had left, she said, she wanted only to marry Michael O'Connell, the father of her infant daughter, in a "dream wedding." Money, rings, dresses, $1,000 worth of wine and appetizers, and a time-share apartment in Aruba flowed in. Her heartbreaking story was even picked up by a local newspaper. The couple married in May 2010. Soon after, the husband went to the newspaper with suspicions about the story they published and he was subsequently living. The couple soon divorced, and by April 2011, Vega, then 25, was indicted on charges of fraud and grand larceny. The newlywed-and-divorced woman was forced to pay more than $13,000 back to her donors. But fear not, romantics, for this story has a happy ending. After Vega was released from jail, she and O'Connell got back together because, hey, "you can't help who you love," she said.

7. The man who allegedly faked his wife's death-by-cancer to score time off and money
At first it was just a lump Scott Wellington's wife found in her breast. But the illness quickly escalated. Over two and a half years, Wellington's colleagues at C&M Machine Co. in New Hampshire followed along with the harrowing tale of a breast cancer diagnosis, a double mastectomy, and, eventually, his young wife's untimely demise. The C&M employees were heartbroken for Wellington and his four children and offered him money to cover the medical bills and time off to care for his kids and attend his wife's medical treatments. Over Christmas he was given at least three weeks of paid holiday, and managed to accumulate more than $7,000 in donations. But Wellington's wife was alive and well. She found out about her fictionalized death only when she opened a sympathy card that arrived at home. She immediately called the company and told them the truth. Wellington was arrested in May 2011 and was charged with two counts of theft by deception. The 31-year-old pleaded not guilty, but he could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

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Sources: CBS News, The Daily Mail, The Frisky, Huffington Post, JezebelNBC News, Sun SentinelUnion Leader, UPI.com

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