Sarah Cavanaugh agreed to plead guilty to charges of fraud, aggravated identity theft, forgery, and fraudulent use of medals, prosecutors say. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
A Rhode Island woman who passed herself off as a cancer-stricken Marine Corps veteran and collected nearly $310,000 in cash and other benefits from charities will plead guilty, according to the Justice Department.
Sarah Cavanaugh signed a plea agreement Tuesday, July 12, in the US District Court in Providence, admitting to fraud, aggravated identity theft, forgery, and fraudulent use of medals. Cavanaugh also agreed to pay restitution, and has already provided prosecutors with more than $82,000 from the sale of her property, according to court documents.
A federal judge will decide Cavanaugh’s sentence, which could be up to 24 years in prison and include hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and probation. However, prosecutors agreed to recommend a lighter sentence in the plea agreement.
For years, Cavanaugh pretended to be a decorated Marine Corps veteran suffering from severe lung cancer developed from exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as from inhaling particulates following an IED attack. Cavanaugh did not have cancer — and had never served in any branch of the military — but used her position as a social worker at the Providence VA Medical Center in Rhode Island to steal and forge cancer diagnoses and medical bills from real patients. Cavanaugh also swiped a real DD Form 214 separation document belonging to a male Marine Corps veteran and presented it as her own, according to court records.
A woman identified as Sarah Bregler poses for a photo posted to Facebook on June 4, 2019. According to the post, she was VFW Post 152 junior vice commander at the time and had just helped present scholarships on behalf of the organization. VFW Department of Rhode Island photo courtesy of Facebook.
Described by veterans who interacted with her as quiet, reserved, and soft-spoken, Cavanaugh nonetheless told her fabricated story in TV interviews and at public events. She bought replicas of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with “V,” and pinned them to a Marine uniform she wore to events. She also served as commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 152 in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, from October 2020 until the allegations of stolen valor surfaced in late January 2022.
By that point, armed with her fake documents and tear-jerking story, Cavanaugh had raked in a total of $309,708 in cash and other help from unsuspecting donors, prosecutors say. The Wounded Warrior Project alone spent at least $225,895 on Cavanaugh, according to federal investigators. She also collected about $15,000 for art program tuition and travel expenses from a nonprofit called CreatiVets; more than $10,000 for a new furnace from the SSG Matthew A. Pucino Memorial Foundation; nearly $2,000 from Patrol Base Abbate; more than $5,000 from an actual cancer-stricken Navy veteran; and nearly $4,800 from a GoFundMe. New court documents also allege that Cavanaugh pocketed “Giving Tree” donations from VFW Post 152 amounting to nearly $4,400 between 2016 and 2021.
Cavanaugh also scammed the federal government and her co-workers, according to prosecutors. She conned her co-workers into donating 261 hours of their own leave time to her (worth $11,891) and used 460 hours of emergency paid leave from the VA (worth $20,957.60) by signing false paperwork using a real physical therapist’s name.
Sarah Cavanaugh portrays herself as a Marine Corps veteran and Purple Heart recipient during an Aug. 5, 2021, TV interview. Screenshot via WPRI.
Cavanaugh’s alleged scheme finally unraveled in late January after the cancer research and veteran advocacy nonprofit HunterSeven began processing her request for assistance and shared Cavanaugh’s story on HunterSeven’s Instagram page. Eagle-eyed social media users noticed that Cavanaugh had her collar on backward and that her earrings were out of regulation. And the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal with V raised red flags for Amy Forsythe, who had worked as a public affairs officer in the Marine Corps during the time period Cavanaugh claimed to have served. If someone — especially a woman — had earned the fourth-highest military decoration for valor, Forsythe was sure she would have heard about it.
A lawyer for Cavanaugh did not immediately respond to Coffee or Die Magazine’s request for comment.
Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.
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