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Fake Marine gets 70 months in prison for defrauding veterans charities

Sarah Jane Cavanaugh deceived veterans charities for years.
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Sarah Cavanaugh
Photo composite of Sarah Cavanaugh. (VFW Department of Rhode Island and Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Wesley Timm.)

A Rhode Island woman convicted of falsely claiming to be a combat-wounded Marine as part of scams to defraud veterans charities out of more than $250,000 has been sentenced to 70 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release, according to the Justice Department.

Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 32, has also been ordered to pay more than $284,000 in restitution and a federal judge has reinstated 261 hours of paid leave donated to Cavanaugh by federal employees, a Justice Department news release says.

On Aug. 9, Cavanaugh pleaded guilty to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, forged military discharge certificate, and fraudulent use of military medals, according to the Justice Department. She also admitted to a federal judge that she had stolen the identities of a Marine veteran and a Navy veteran who was suffering from cancer while she worked at the Department of Veteran Affairs at the Rhode Island Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“Sarah Cavanaugh’s conduct in the course of her scheme is nothing short of appalling,” U.S. Attorney Cunha said in a statement after Cavanaugh’s sentencing on Tuesday. “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. I am grateful that, with today’s sentence, she has been brought to justice and will face the consequences of her actions.”

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Cavanaugh’s attorney Kensley Barrett declined to comment on Wednesday, explaining that his client is currently being held at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center in Rhode Island and he could not speak about her sentencing until he spoke with her.

For five years, Cavanaugh defrauded veterans charities by claiming to be a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who was wounded by a roadside bomb blast while deployed with the Marines and later developed service-related cancer, the news release says.

Between 2017 and 2021, Cavanaugh received $207,000 from the Wounded Warrior Project that she said she needed for groceries and physical therapy sessions, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general’s office. She also raised more than $4,700 for a fundraiser allegedly meant to help her pay her medical bills, for which she falsely claimed to have saved the lives of Marines after a roadside bomb blast.

Other charities gave Cavanaugh money to purchase a new furnace for her home and to pay for her gym membership fees.

Cavanaugh’s schemes fell apart after the HunterSeven Foundation, a prominent veterans group, announced on Jan. 31, 2022, that it was refunding all donations that it had received after sharing Cavanaugh’s story on Instagram because it had discovered she had no service record. Kate Mannion, co-host of the podcast Zero Blog Thirty, was the first to report the story.

At the time, Cavanaugh was serving as commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 152 in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. She resigned from that position on the same day that the HunterSeven Foundation revealed that she was not a veteran.

In a Feb. 1, 2022, interview, Cavanaugh told Task & Purpose that she was never affiliated with VFW Post 152; that she had never told the HunterSeven Foundation that she was a Marine veteran suffering from cancer; and that she had never accepted donations from charities.

Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class David Ainslie, the current commander of VFW Post 152, read a statement in court on Tuesday that he has tried to rebuild the organization “in the wake of her destructive path.”

The post gave Cavanaugh more than $6,000 in the years after she joined in 2016, during which she earned members’ trust, Ainslie’s said.

“Sarah saw an opportunity to personally enrich herself by masquerading as a disabled veteran with documents she acquired and misused from her well-paying federal service job,” Ainslie said. “While simultaneously acting as a trusted confidant to many client veterans during the day at the VA, she was spending her evenings and weekends siphoning extremely limited resources destined for some of those same client

veterans as she sought to upgrade to a nicer car, go on vacations, and buy gifts for herself.”

“These funds would have, without her insistent and convincing pleas for help, gone to real Veterans in actual need of assistance with housing payments, childcare, food insecurity, homelessness, addiction, and other battles our nation’s Veterans fight every single day,” he continued.

Since Cavanaugh was exposed as a fraud, VFW Post 152 has seen a 50% decrease in corporate donations and several local organizations severed ties with the post because they no longer trust the post to use their money wisely, Ainslie said.

“We are an honest, hardworking group of people that are proud of our service and dedicated to helping each other — sometimes, as we have seen here, to a fault,” Ainslie said. “Please remember the good works that we have done and will continue to do, and do not let this person’s actions and total lack of character and integrity continue to undermine our efforts.” 

Pat Murray, the VFW’s director of national legislative service, is originally from North Kingston and is a member of VFW Post 152.

Most stolen valor cases are simply an annoyance, but Cavanaugh’s case is different because she took real veterans’ stories to commit fraud and theft, Murray told Task & Purpose.

Murray is a Marine veteran who lost his right leg below the knee after being wounded in September 2006 while serving in Fallujah, Iraq. He said he’s always been grateful for the help he’s received over the years, and it is dismaying to see how Cavanaugh used the outpouring of support that she received so maliciously.

“That hurts because a lot of people are going through their own different struggles, regardless of what they saw overseas or what they’re dealing with afterward back here in the States, and to use that for personal gain is really insulting. There are a lot of people who were hurt by this.”

Marine Maj. Tom Schueman, the founder of nonprofit Patrol Base Abbate, said he looked into raising money for Cavanaugh after she told him she was dying of cancer due to her exposure to toxins from burn pits, but he quickly noticed that she claimed to have been a staff sergeant while the DD-24 she gave him listed her rank at the time of separation as corporal.

Cavanaugh then claimed she was reduced in rank from staff sergeant to corporal for shooting her commanding officer while he attempted to sexually assault her, Schueman said.

Schueman said he knows many people who have been awarded Purple Hearts and have service-related illnesses, so Cavanaugh’s false claims about being a combat-wounded Marine dying of cancer are particularly egregious.

“I hope more than anything that her sentencing serves as a deterrent to any nefarious actors who may want to prey upon good-hearted Americans, leveraging the service and the sacrifice that folks in the military have made,” Schueman said.

Chelsey Simoni, executive director of the HunterSeven Foundation, said she was enraged as she watched Cavanaugh’s two-and-a-half hour sentencing hearing remotely on Tuesday.

Simoni was galled to hear how Cavanaugh stole the identity of a Navy veteran who needed money for cancer treatment, but she was especially appalled when Cavanaugh’s attorney requested that the federal judge sentence his client to 24 months in prison.

“I think back to the actual, heroic, selfless serving veterans I have cared for and lost to cancer,” Simoni told Task & Purpose on Wednesday. “Some don’t even have 24 months. Some had less than 24 days between diagnosis and death. Some families would give anything to have 24 months again with a loved one who is no longer with us. I don’t think her sentence can be measured for her moral and ethical ill-sought actions.”

Simoni said she doubts Cavanaugh is truly remorseful for posing as a wounded veteran suffering from cancer to get money from charitable organizations.

Thankfully, Cavanaugh’s scam did not hurt the HunterSeven Foundation because the non-profit group conducts an extensive vetting process of the people with whom it works and it was able to quickly find the holes in her story, Simoni said.

“We are a grassroots organization born from the community, we are trusted as the HunterSeven mission is a lived experience for everyone on our team,” Simoni said. “And we are thankful the community continues to trust us and support our work.”

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