A Rhode Island woman who posed as an ailing military veteran to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits and charitable contributions has been sentenced to nearly six years in federal prison, the Department of Justice said Tuesday.
Sarah Jane Cavanaugh — who never served in the U.S. military — claimed that she was a Purple Heart and Bronze Star-decorated Marine who had been wounded by an IED in Iraq. Cavanaugh, 32, also claimed that she had developed service-related cancer.
Cavanaugh was charged with using forged or counterfeited military discharge certificates, wire fraud, fraudulently holding herself out to be a medal recipient with intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit, and aggravated identity theft in March 2022. In August 2022, she pled guilty to several of those charges, including wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, forged military discharge certificate, and fraudulent use of military medals.
On Tuesday, she was sentenced to 70 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.
As part of her sentence, Cavanaugh will have to pay back the $284,796.82 she fraudulently obtained.
Cavanaugh was employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs at the Rhode Island Veterans Affairs Medical Center. According to a news release from the Department of Justice, Cavanaugh used her position there to “misappropriate veterans’ identities, their combat experiences, their diagnoses of illnesses, and their valor to devise schemes to enrich herself.”
CBS News has previously reported that Cavanaugh collected $207,000 from a Wounded Warrior program to pay for groceries and physical therapy. She also collected about $18,500 in financial assistance from a program in Virginia for mortgage payments, home repairs, a gym membership and other bills, and $4,700 from a fundraising website. She collected another $16,000 from CreatiVets, a charity that provides art therapy for veterans. Cavanaugh also used her fraudulent cancer diagnosis to get months of paid leave from federal employee benefit programs.
Cavanaugh also assumed leadership roles in the veteran community, the Department of Justice said, acting as a commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Rhode Island and giving speeches in a full U.S. Marine uniform, complete with the medals she did not earn but instead purchased online.
The Department of Justice referred to Cavanaugh’s behavior as “near-daily criminal conduct.” Court documents alleged that she worked in a “methodical and calculated manner” to do crimes “among the more reprehensible seen in this District from a fraud defendant.”
Cavanaugh was caught after an investigation was launched by the Providence Veteran’s Association after a local organization, HunterSeven, which helps veterans with cancer, became suspicious of Cavanaugh’s requests for aid.
“Sarah Cavanaugh’s conduct in the course of her scheme is nothing short of appalling,” remarked U.S. Attorney Zachary A. Cunha in the Department of Justice news release. “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.”