Woman accused of stolen valor charged with defrauding $250,000 from veteran charities

'We wasted time on this fucking asshole,' one nonprofit leader said.
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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 woman who allegedly lied about being a Marine combat veteran dying of lung cancer is accused of swindling roughly $250,000 from veterans charities since 2017, court records show.

Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 31, has been charged with wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and related offenses for allegedly preying on the goodwill of several organizations that provide financial support to veterans in need, according to the Justice Department.

Cavanaugh, who worked at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Providence, Rhode Island, was arrested by federal agents on Monday and appeared in federal court. She is currently free on $50,000 unsecured bond. Her attorney Kensley Barrett declined to comment to Task & Purpose on Tuesday.

In a previous statement to Task & Purpose, Cavanaugh denied she had claimed to be a Marine veteran suffering from cancer or that she had sent a DD-214 to a charity as proof of her service, or that she had served as commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 152 in Rhode Island. Despite Cavanaugh’s denials, the VFW Department of Rhode Island had identified her as the post’s commander on its Facebook page, she also appeared at public events as the post commander, and VFW officials confirmed that she had indeed served as the commander of that post before resigning on Jan. 31.

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Federal authorities claim that Cavanaugh forged a DD-214 military discharge document and used her official VA email account to buy a Marine Corps uniform along with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal to pass herself off as a combat veteran, according to an affidavit filed by the VA’s inspector general’s office.

Investigators allege that Cavanaugh has repeatedly lied about being a combat veteran who needed medical help to rake in money. Between 2017 and 2021, the Wounded Warrior Project alone provided her with roughly $207,000 for groceries and physical therapy sessions.

The charity CreatiVets, which has limited resources, gave Cavanaugh more than $16,000 for travel, tuition in an art program, and other benefits because she claimed to have received the Purple Heart and been awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor, the affidavit says.

She is also accused of raising more than $4,700 as part of a GoFundMe campaign that was supposedly meant to help her pay medical bills for cancer treatment, according to investigators. As part of that fundraising campaign, Cavanaugh claimed that she helped save the lives of Marines after a roadside bomb blast.

Federal authorities claim that Cavanaugh was particularly aggressive in defrauding The Code of Support Foundation, a nonprofit group that helped her receive more than $18,000 in money or benefits. For example, the group contacted another organization, The Matthew Pucino Foundation, which paid more than $10,000 to repair Cavanaugh’s home furnace, believing she was a combat veteran suffering from cancer.

One of Code of Support’s donors also paid $900 to cover Cavanaugh’s gym membership fees, and Cavanaugh also asked for help paying her mortgage and other expenses. In one email, she allegedly asked for $1,500 to pay her bills. “In a follow-up email the same day, Cavanaugh reminded Code of Support she was a Purple Heart recipient,” the affidavit says.

Her alleged ruse began to unravel in January, when the HunterSeven Foundation, a prominent veterans group, asked the VA medical center in Rhode Island to verify Cavanaugh’s service after she had asked the group for help paying her medical bills, and it quickly became apparent that Cavanaugh had no service record, federal authorities found.

In fact, investigators found that the Electronic Data Interchange Personal Identifier number on the DD-214 form that Cavanaugh had used as proof of her service belonged to Patrick Hurney, who had served in the Marine Corps from 2011 until 2016.

Further investigation revealed that Cavanaugh had obtained Hurney’s records when she worked at the VA medical center in Rhode Island, according to the affidavit. “The business reason, if any, as to why Cavanaugh accessed Hurney’s records is not readily apparent.”

For those veterans service organizations who were taken in by Cavanaugh, news of her alleged deceptions exploded like a nuclear weapon when Kate Mannion, co-host of the podcast Zero Blog Thirty, first revealed on Jan. 31 that the HunterSeven Foundation was refunding all the donations it had received. The donation refund came after the group shared on Instagram Cavanaugh’s claim that she had become sickened with lung cancer after being wounded in a roadside bomb explosion in Afghanistan.

For veterans and advocates, Cavanaugh’s actions are particularly galling because she diverted resources away from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who really are suffering from terminal cancer and may have only weeks to live, Chelsey Simoni, executive director of the HunterSeven Foundation, told Task & Purpose.

Simoni said her group is currently helping a 32-year-old Marine Corps and Army Special Forces veteran who is fighting a very aggressive form of pancreatic cancer related to his military experience.

“I received his case around the same time I received Sarah Cavanaugh’s,” Simoni said. “For her to take away that time from our team to focus on her bullshit instead of helping this young, selfless serving, special operations, police officer, father of two, husband, amazing man — instead of spending our time helping him, getting him those second opinions, getting him to where he needs to be with lifesaving treatment, we wasted time on this fucking asshole.”

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