By the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office
PROVIDENCE – A Rhode Island woman who never served in the U.S. Military but perpetrated a massive fraud scheme by falsely masquerading as a Purple Heart and Bronze Star-decorated United States Marine who claimed to have been wounded by an IED in Iraq and to have developed service-related cancer was sentenced today to nearly six years in federal prison, announced United States Attorney Zachary A. Cunha.
Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 32, whose near-daily criminal conduct over a period of five years is described in court documents as being “among the more reprehensible seen in this District from a fraud defendant,” defrauded veterans, veterans’ organizations, veterans’ charities, friends, and co-workers in a “methodical and calculated manner.”
Cavanaugh previously admitted to a federal judge that, while employed as a civilian by the Department of Veterans Affairs at the Rhode Island Veterans Affairs Medical Center, a role in which she was supposed to help and support military veterans, she used her position to misappropriate veterans’ identities, their combat experiences, their diagnoses of illnesses, and their valor to devise schemes to enrich herself by using the stolen information to obtain more than $250,000 in cash, charitable donations, and services reserved for injured veterans.
“Sarah Cavanaugh’s conduct in the course of her scheme is nothing short of appalling,” remarked U.S. Attorney Cunha. “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.”
“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 Special Agent in Charge Christopher Algieri of the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General’s Northeast Field Office. “The VA OIG thanks the United States Attorney’s Office and our law enforcement partners for their efforts in bringing this defendant to justice.”
“Individuals who falsely represent themselves as decorated veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces degrades the service of the men and women who selflessly serve our country,” said Patrick J. Hegarty, Special Agent in Charge of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service Northeast Field Office, the law enforcement component of the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General. “Profiting from such an egregious scheme is an affront to the U.S. military’s long-standing tradition of honoring and awarding its brave service members. Today’s sentencing demonstrates our commitment to work with our law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate allegations of stolen valor.”
“Ms. Cavanaugh deserves to be held fully accountable for falsely claiming to be wounded Marine veteran as part of a reprehensible scheme to collect more than $250,000 in veterans benefits and charitable contributions that should have been directed to real veterans in need,” said Special Agent in Charge Michael T. Wiest of the NCIS Northeast Field Office. “NCIS and our partners remain committed to investigating all allegations of fraud that harms Department of the Navy service members and their families.”
“Sarah Cavanagh feigned having cancer, and falsely claimed valor where there was none, to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits and charitable donations. Her actions are an insult to every veteran who has served our country, and today she learned her fate for her criminal conduct,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Boston Division. “Make no mistake, the FBI and our law enforcement partners are committed to seeking justice for anyone who lies about serving our country and illegally takes money from federal programs that help veterans who rightfully deserve it.”
Court documents detail Ms. Cavanaugh’s “repugnant” criminal activity: falsely purporting to be a combat-injured veteran allowed her to gain introduction to, and acceptance by, friends, charities, businesses, and organizations whom she then exploited and/or defrauded. Nine veterans’ charities combined to fund Cavanaugh’s travel to retreats, in-home care, gym memberships, physical therapy, paying electric bills, and provided donated gift cards for use in obtaining groceries and other essentials. Cavanaugh also used false documentation to fraudulently obtain months of paid leave from two federal employee benefit programs based on her cancer claims.
Even more brazenly, Cavanaugh exploited her purported experiences to assume leadership roles in the veteran community, including as commander of a VFW Post in North Kingstown, RI; gave public speeches while dressed in full U.S. Marine uniform, complete with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star that she purchased on the internet; and secured a spot in an arts program at the University of Southern California, a program she described to a U.S. Army veteran she met through the Wounded Warrior Program who was later accepted into the program. In a letter to the court, the Army veteran faulted Cavanaugh for taking “a spot [in the program] from another veteran who could have participated in the program and, ultimately, may not have committed suicide.”
Sarah Cavanaugh pleaded guilty on August 9, 2022, to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, forged military discharge certificate, and fraudulent use of military medals. She was sentenced today by U.S. District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell, Jr., to 70 months in federal prison to be followed by 3 years of federal supervised release. Additionally, the court ordered Cavanaugh to pay restitution to all victims perpetrated by her fraud totaling $284,796.82. The court also issued an order that the federal government reinstate a total of 261 hours of federal employee paid leave time they donated to Cavanaugh.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Ronald R. Gendron.
The matter was investigated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Police Service; U.S. Defense Criminal Investigative Service; U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service; FBI; U.S. Postal Inspection Service; and Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations.