PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The East Greenwich woman convicted of defrauding veterans, charities, friends and organizations by falsely claiming to be a wounded Marine veteran will spend nearly six years behind bars.
Sarah Cavanaugh, 32, pleaded guilty last summer to four counts of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, forged military discharge certificates, and fraudulent use of military medals.
Cavanaugh was sentenced to serve 70 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. She was ordered to pay more than $250,000 in restitution.
“Sarah Cavanaugh’s conduct in the course of her scheme is nothing short of appalling,” U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha said. “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.”
An investigation revealed Cavanaugh falsely claimed to be a cancer-stricken Marine Corps veteran and used “that status to obtain money, goods, services, and paid leave from various individuals, charities, and employee benefit programs.”
“At the time she did so, she was neither ill nor a veteran – Cavanaugh has never served in the U.S. military in any capacity,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Gendron wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed Friday.
In court, Cavanaugh apologized for her actions and acknowledged that the “damage can’t be undone.”
“I will always carry this burden and shame for what I have done, and I accept that,” Cavanaugh said.
Cavanaugh’s defense attorney Kensley Barrett had asked the judge for leniency in a sentencing memorandum filed Sunday, arguing that a two-year sentence would be “sufficient, but not greater than necessary.”
Despite Cavanaugh’s “severe trauma” during high school, Barrett said she “beat the odds” and graduated, then went on to earn a sociology degree.
“Sadly, Ms. Cavanaugh inexplicably created a persona of that of a Marine Veteran and traveled down a destructive path in which she has ultimately caused deep pain and trauma to the very people that she had dedicated her life to help,” Barrett wrote.
Barrett claimed Cavanaugh did not commit the crimes “with malice in her heart or purely for economic benefit,” and that her actions “are much more nuanced than what it appears at first glance.”
But Gendron retorted that Cavanaugh’s acts were “reprehensible and caused financial and severe emotional damage to many innocent people and organizations.”
In a letter to the judge – quoted in Gendron’s memo – one of Cavanaugh’s unnamed victims said she took “a spot from another veteran,” who later committed suicide.
In court, North Kingstown VFW 152 Commander David Ainslie testified that what Cavanaugh did was “far more insidious” than someone “trying to score a free meal on Veterans Day.”
Ainslie said Cavanaugh’s crimes, which she committed while serving as commander of the North Kingstown VFW, have detrimentally impacted their organization.
Lisa Woodbury Rama, a member of North Kingstown VFW 152, told 12 News outside court that Cavanaugh’s actions have resulted in a loss of trust and support for the post.
“It damaged us,” Woodbury Rama said. “There are things we’re trying to get out there and support and … we don’t have as much money, we don’t have as many volunteers. You can’t put a dollar figure on that.”
Another victim told the court that, if given the chance, Cavanaugh would what she did all over again.
“There is 100% no doubt in my mind,” the victim said, after describing Cavanaugh as a “fraud, liar, master manipulator and con artist.”
Barrett said Cavanaugh has “taken steps” to set aside a portion of the proceeds she will receive from selling her home in an effort to make restitution. He said she agreed to a $294,000 forfeiture/restitution order and “fully intends to repay every single dollar,” and that a longer sentence will only delay that process.
Cavanaugh’s crimes prompted the swift introduction and passage of a stolen valor bill, which makes the act punishable at both the state and federal levels. Gov. Dan McKee signed the legislation into law back in June.
“This action demonstrates to the public at large that fraud of this sort and similarly situated defendants will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law – deterring any would-be offenders from participating in a similar scheme,” Barrett wrote.
Barrett also wrote that Cavanaugh “will never be able to fully overcome” the “viral notoriety” she gained as a result of her actions.
Following her arrest, Barrett said Cavanaugh “voluntarily resigned” from her job at the Veterans Affairs Medical Facility “in disgrace,” her spouse filed for divorce, she received “numerous death threats” and handed over her social worker’s license in Rhode Island.
Barrett argued Cavanaugh “has already paid a significant price for her conduct.” Prior to this case, he said Cavanaugh did not have a criminal history, is non-violent, and poses a low risk of re-offending.
Cavanaugh was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom shortly after learning her fate.
Following her prison sentence, Cavanaugh must undergo substance abuse and mental health treatment. She will also be administered up to 72 substance abuse tests annually throughout her supervised release.
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