How Sleuths Blew the Lid on Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, Accused Purple Heart Fraudster and Fake Marine

A New England woman is accused of posing as a combat-wounded Marine Corps veteran and defrauding various charities out of hundreds of thousands of dollars while faking Stage IV cancer she falsely claimed was due to toxic exposure from burn pits in Iraq as well as an IED blast in Afghanistan.

Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 31, claimed she was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star while serving in the Marines from 2009 to 2016, according to a complaint unsealed Monday in Rhode Island federal court. The feds say Cavanaugh, who never served but held down a job as a social worker at a Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center in Providence, falsified official documents she pilfered from patients at the VA to make her story more realistic. To complete the alleged ruse, Cavanaugh talked her way into a position as commander of her local VFW, even emceeing an event last year to mark the opening of the state’s Purple Heart Trail.

Over the past several years, Cavanaugh allegedly bilked the Wounded Warrior Project out of some $207,000 meant to pay for groceries and physical therapy; more than $18,000 from the Code of Support Foundation for mortgage payments, repairs to her furnace, a gym membership, and other unspecified bills; nearly $16,500 from CreatiVets, a nonprofit that gave Cavanaugh preference over other veterans as a supposed Purple Heart recipient, to pay for art therapy; and just shy of $5,000 for nonexistent cancer treatment from a GoFundMe campaign titled, “Help Sarah Win Her Battle.”

Cavanaugh turned in an Oscar-worthy performance, said Chelsey Simoni, a registered nurse, Army veteran, and the executive director of the HunterSeven Foundation, a Massachusetts-based charity that advocates for post-9/11 veterans suffering from cancer and other serious medical conditions. But after doing a bit of digging, Simoni eventually realized something wasn’t right about Cavanaugh, who appeared in full Marine Corps uniform at multiple veterans’ events, and in January took her concerns to authorities.

Thanks to Simoni’s tip, Cavanaugh was arrested on Monday in Warwick, Rhode Island by special agents from the VA Inspector General’s Office. She is now charged with using forged or counterfeit 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.

“She said she was diagnosed with lung cancer—she’s only a year younger than me, [and] it broke my heart,” Simoni told The Daily Beast. “She had Purple Heart license plates, you name it, the whole thing.”

When U.S. Marine Corps Major Thomas Schueman first met Cavanaugh a few years back, he was impressed. She appeared “very compelling, she said all the right words, had all the lingo down,” Schueman recalled.

Schueman’s nonprofit, Patrol Base Abbate, offers veterans an important chance to decompress and form lasting relationships with like-minded service members at its compound in the Montana wilderness. Named for Matt Abbate, a Marine Corps sergeant who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010, the retreats are provided free to anyone who served.

One of the participants was Cavanaugh, who attended two retreats at Patrol Base Abbate and established several close relationships with female veterans there, Schueman told The Daily Beast.

“Once or twice, something raised a red flag, but there was something about her that made me push the ‘I believe’ button and move past it,” Schueman said. “She said she was a female veteran, and you want to see this great story out of this female veteran.”

Schueman, who taught at the U.S. Naval Academy, said he and Cavanaugh often had deep discussions about literature, which they both loved. He developed a kinship of sorts with her through discussing the classics, and came to think quite highly of her.

On Dec. 17, 2021, a veteran who knew Cavanaugh from Patrol Base Abbate submitted her name to HunterSeven, according to Simoni.

Simoni emailed Cavanaugh right away, saying she wanted to help in any way possible. Cavanaugh responded minutes later, telling Simoni that she had been diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Simoni said the two then spoke by phone, and Cavanaugh detailed the roadside bomb she said led to her terminal diagnosis. Everything seemed to make sense to Simoni, who said Cavanaugh told her she managed to save the lives of two Marines injured in the explosion.

Simoni got permission from Cavanaugh to share her story with HunterSeven’s network, and posted about it on social media.

“I found a photo of her in a Marine Corps uniform,” Simoni told The Daily Beast. “She said the IED blast caused her to inhale heavy metal particulate matter, which is feasible. I was surprised I hadn’t heard about this, because I’m pretty in tune with the female veterans’ community. So I spoke to Tom Schueman, and he spoke very highly of her.”

The next day, Simoni said Cavanaugh sent a stack of medical bills she said she was having trouble paying. Concerned, Simoni said she immediately mailed Cavanaugh a check for $3,000. (This interaction is referenced in the complaint against Cavanaugh, but does not specify an exact amount.)

In the two days or so it took for the check to reach Cavanaugh’s mailbox, other vets began asking questions. Something didn’t look right about the uniform Cavanaugh was wearing in one of the photos Simoni had shared online, according to one of them.

However, Simoni hadn’t yet connected all of the dots and still felt compelled to help. One of the hospital bills Cavanaugh sent Simoni was from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Simoni said she went to Dana-Farber’s online portal and tried to pay it. But the account number listed on the bill wasn’t in the system.


So Simoni reached out to a Marine Corps contact, and asked them to look up Cavanaugh’s service record.

“They searched and said she never served,” Simoni said, alleging that she was now beginning to hear from other nonprofits with stories about having financially supported Cavanaugh. One alleged that Cavanaugh had presented herself as a Purple Heart recipient who spent eight months recovering from her injuries at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Yet, Simoni said when she asked a contact at Walter Reed if Cavanaugh had ever been a patient there, they said they had no record of her.

“That night, I didn’t sleep at all,” said Simoni.

At roughly the same time, Cavanaugh began angling for a job at Patrol Base Abbate. The organization is run on a shoestring budget, and paid positions are not always feasible, said Schueman.

In January, the two met at a coffee shop in Rhode Island to discuss the possibility of Cavanaugh working for Schueman. Before they linked up, Schueman said he had come across Cavanaugh’s GoFundMe page, which listed her medical issues and noted Cavanaugh’s father was a military general and that her brother had been killed in action.

Schueman said that Cavanaugh told him that, on top of her lung cancer, she was due to have her leg amputated.

“She said she was living on borrowed time, and her dying wish was to work for Patrol Base Abbate,” Schueman told The Daily Beast. “I said, ‘Let me go speak to our donors, and see if I can raise some money [for your salary].’ If this was her dying wish, then of course—I thought I’d ask for $60,000 to $80,000 to make her a manager in the organization.”

So Schueman asked Cavanaugh for her DD-214—military discharge papers—and her resume, so he could get the process started.

“The second I looked at her DD-214, I said, ‘This isn’t right,’” Schueman recalled. “One, it said she was an E-4, a corporal, but she told me she was a staff sergeant. She told me she was medically retired for her injuries, but the DD-214 said she was separated for some other reason.”

According to the criminal complaint against Cavanaugh, some of the dates didn’t match up on the DD-214 she tried to pass off as her own.

Schueman asked a Marine Corps colleague to take a look at the document, which also looked off to him. He then checked the Purple Heart and Bronze Star databases, which list every recipient by name. He said Cavanaugh was not among them.

“I called her and said, ‘Hey Sarah, there are a couple of discrepancies here,’” said Schueman. “‘I am literally on my way to meet with a key donor and going to make a significant ask. The reputation of the organization is on the line, so I want to make sure everything’s good…’ She started with this crazy, crazy story, that she was sexually assaulted by her commander on a ship and, and said she fought back and shot him and got court martialed and reduced in rank. I asked why she got reduced in rank from staff sergeant to corporal, and she started to allude that there was, like, a deep state conspiracy where the Marine Corps was trying to ‘erase’ Sarah Cavanaugh.”

By the end of the day, Schueman felt he “knew for a fact” that Cavanaugh didn’t have a Purple Heart or a Bronze Star, and that the Social Security Number on her DD-214 wasn’t hers. When Schueman gave her a chance to come clean, he said Cavanaugh insisted the “deep state” was out to get her.

“She had the audacity to call me 24 hours later and ask if I was able to get the money from the donor,” said Schueman, who told Cavanaugh that he was going to have to “pause” the hiring process until he could get to the bottom of things.

On Jan. 27, Simoni called the VA Medical Center in Providence to report Cavanaugh.

She got Associate Chief of Patient Services Wesley Archambault-Beach on the phone, who told Simoni that he had “conducted inquiries of various VA databases and found no evidence that Cavanaugh ever served in the USMC,” according to the criminal complaint. “Additionally, the DD-214 indicated Cavanaugh served as a Marine Security Guard (MSG),” the complaint states. “These Marines serve at all U.S. Embassies overseas. Under the block for military education, no mention of MSG training was entered.”

Simoni quickly contacted her lawyer, stopped payment on the $3,000 check she had sent to Cavanaugh, and went to the local police.

The cops referred Simoni to the FBI, who brought in the VA Inspector General. A day later, IG Special Agent Tom Donnelly called Simoni, who told him everything.

In February, investigators searched Cavanaugh’s home and 2019 Volvo, according to a search warrant filed in Rhode Island federal court. There, says the returned warrant, they turned up a Smith & Wesson revolver, four iPads, numerous other electronics, an assortment of pills, a torn-up check, and a VFW membership card, among other things.

Cavanaugh’s DD-214 was indeed a forgery, according to the complaint. Donnelly matched the ID number on it to a real Marine Corps veteran named Patrick Hurney, the filing says. Hurney, who now works for the Navy as a civilian employee, had visited the Providence VA Medical Center, where Cavanaugh worked, the complaint explains. He told investigators he had no idea who Cavanaugh was and couldn’t fathom how she might have gotten his DD-214.

When investigators checked the VA’s electronic access logs, they discovered that “Hurney’s records were viewed by Cavanaugh,” states the complaint. “The business reason, if any, as to why Cavanaugh accessed Hurney’s records is not readily apparent.”As for Cavanaugh’s Purple Heart and Bronze Star, emails Cavanaugh sent from her official VA account turned up an order she submitted to a San Diego business last September, requesting to purchase, “among other awards, a Bronze Star with ‘V’ Device and a Purple Heart,” according to the complaint. “Cavanaugh requested that the medals be shipped to her home address.”

The Bronze Star’s “V” device denotes heroism in combat.

In a statement provided to The Daily Beast, Rhode Island VFW official Matthew Baldwin McCoy said the group “ takes fraud and the matter of stolen valor seriously and reiterates that the alleged actions of Sarah J. Cavanaugh are not a reflection on our veteran service organization as a whole or the combat veterans who make up its membership.”

To Schueman, the lies sting far worse than the financial aspect of Cavanaugh’s alleged crimes.

“Specifically with my organization, we’re trying to build a community that is based on trust, empathy—the idea is that when veterans are connected, they’re less likely to commit suicide,” he told The Daily Beast. “And she had formed a sisterhood… She had like four best friends, they had become a newly formed sisterhood. … That was really the hard part about it for me… No jail sentence is going to repair some of those vulnerabilities.”Simoni is also trying to fully process her surreal experience with Cavanaugh. What gets to her, she said, is that the IED explosion by which Cavanaugh allegedly said she was gravely injured actually happened—just not to her.

“A young Marine was actually killed at the event she said she was at,” said Simoni. “It’s just horrific.”

Cavanaugh was arraigned in federal court on Monday, and released on $50,000 bond. Kensley Barrett, one of Cavanaugh’s two defense lawyers, told The Daily Beast in an email, “This is an unusual case on multiple levels and we understand the notoriety that stems from the charges. However, at this time, we respectfully decline to make a comment due to the posture of the criminal proceedings.”

If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of more than 20 years in prison. How Sleuths Blew the Lid on Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, Accused Purple Heart Fraudster and Fake Marine

Russell Falcon

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