PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A former social worker at a Rhode Island veterans' hospital who used stolen patient information to brazenly pass herself off as a decorated Marine Corps veteran with cancer and fraudulently collect nearly $300,000 in benefits, charitable contributions, and donations was sentenced Tuesday to nearly six years in prison.
A U.S. District Court in Providence also ordered Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 32, to pay full restitution.
Cavanaugh attended public events in uniform where she spoke about the struggles veterans face, bought a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star to wear, and was even named commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. Then, in early 2022 she was exposed when a charity she applied to for funds became suspicious and started checking her background.
“Sarah Cavanaugh’s conduct in the course of her scheme is nothing short of appalling,” U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha said in a statement. “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."
Cavanaugh's defense attorney, Kensley Barrett, had sought a two-year sentence citing her lack of a criminal history, low risk of reoffending, and the “significant price” she has already paid through public disgrace, loss of her professional license, the breakup of her marriage, and even online death threats.
Cavanaugh, who pleaded guilty in August to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, forgery, and fraudulent use of medals, apologized in court.
There is no record of Cavanaugh ever serving in the U.S. military. She did, however, work as a licensed social worker for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence.
It was through the job that she gained access to documents, personal information and medical records belonging to a real veteran with cancer, which she used to create fraudulent documents and medical records in her name that said she had been honorably discharged and had cancer, prosecutors said when she was charged last March.
When Cavanaugh said that she could not afford the insurance deductibles for her cancer treatment, the same veteran whose identity she had stolen and who is identified in court papers only by his initials, agreed to pay them for her — nearly $600 per month — an act that “plumbed the depths of moral depravity," prosecutors said.
Cavanaugh said she served in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2009 until 2016, rose to the rank of corporal, and was being treated for lung cancer as a result of exposure to burn pits and from inhaling particulate matter from a bomb explosion, according to authorities.
She accepted more than $225,000 from the Wounded Warrior Project alone to help pay for yoga classes, gym membership, groceries and physical therapy, among other things, according to prosecutors.
She took her fraud to such extremes, authorities said, that she told people at her gym that injuries to her fingers left her unable to tie her shoes, so someone else had to get down on their knees to tie her laces whenever she wanted to work out.
In one victim impact statement submitted to the court, a real veteran she met said she took a spot in a therapeutic veterans art program that could have gone to a veteran. The veteran told the court that a friend who applied for the program, known as CreatiVets, was not accepted and later took his own life. Cavanaugh received $15,000 from the program, according to court documents.
She received about $18,500 in financial assistance from Code of Support in Virginia for bills and about $4,700 from a fundraising website, prosecutors said.
An investigation was started after the Providence nonprofit the HunterSeven Foundation, which helps sick veterans, contacted the Providence VA because they were suspicious of Cavanaugh when she requested assistance from them.
Cavanaugh, who was also ordered to pay full restitution, is remorseful, her attorney wrote in court documents. She suffered from “severe trauma during her formative years in high school," and through her job developed a connection with the veterans she cared for.
“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,” said Christopher Algieri, head of the VA's Office of Inspector General’s Northeast Field Office.