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Image: Jessica Vega being fitted for her donated wedding gown
Jeff Goulding  /  Times Herald-Record
The Bella Couture dress shop in Newburgh, N.Y., donated a wedding dress to Jessica Vega in April 2010. Shop managers and employees thought Vega had terminal leukemia.
TODAY staff
updated 9/7/2010 7:22:38 PM ET 2010-09-07T23:22:38

Residents of the city of Newburgh, N.Y., are feeling angered — and saddened — over news that they may have fallen for the worst kind of hoax.

Back in April, the local paper ran a story about Jessica Vega, a bride-to-be in her early 20s who had less than a year to live. She said she had acute myeloid leukemia, and she wanted to marry her fiancé before she had to say goodbye to him and their 11-month-old baby girl.

Her story generated an outpouring of sympathy and support from big-hearted locals. They donated a wedding dress, wedding rings, wedding flowers, wedding photos, hair-styling and makeup for the entire bridal party, and a honeymoon in Aruba.

But over Labor Day weekend, those same locals were stunned to learn they may have been tricked. In an article in the Times Herald-Record — the same paper that ran the original piece about Vega — her husband Michael O’Connell alleged that Vega’s cancer diagnosis had been faked.

The newspaper reported that O’Connell said Vega pretended to have terminal leukemia “in order to scam him, everyone they knew and a long list of strangers who heard her story and wanted to help.” The couple is now in the process of divorcing, and O’Connell is pursuing full custody of their now-1-year-old daughter.

Image: Michael O'Connell signing marriage license as Jessica Vega kisses their infant daughter
Jeff Goulding  /  Times Herald-Record
Happier times: Michael O'Connell, left, signed a marriage license on April 5, 2010 at Newburgh City Hall as his fiancée, Jessica Vega, kissed their 11-month-old daughter.

Vega denied deliberately tricking anyone. She told the Times Herald-Record that she now doubts the accuracy of her original diagnosis. She said she has a new doctor and has seen her health improve by exercising, eating fresh foods and drinking only water and tea.

‘Never a patient here’
At issue is the trustworthiness of a letter Vega showed a Times Herald-Record reporter back in April to confirm her leukemia diagnosis. That letter appeared to come from a Dr. Dan Costin.

O’Connell said he simply believed Vega when she told him about the cancer diagnosis while they were still dating. He said he didn’t examine the doctor’s letter closely until recently, and he wishes he had looked at it sooner.

With the Times Herald-Record reporter present and listening over speaker phone, O’Connell called Costin’s office and was told that Vega had not been a patient there.

“I can tell you for sure this person was never a patient here,” an office administrator said.

Vega said she would take the reporter with her to see both Dr. Costin and her new doctor about her condition. On the day they were to visit her new doctor, she canceled with the explanation that she had just received her divorce papers.

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“I have to meet up wit my lawyer instead hope u understand that settlin my divorce is more important and time consuming than this article,” she wrote in a text message. Over the following week, she contacted the reporter again and mentioned “legal consequences” if the newspaper ran a story about her husband’s allegations.

Vega also said her husband had been physically abusive and her health was actually improving now that they were apart. O’Connell acknowledged an incident when he bit Vega’s elbow to escape her headlock, and another incident when he slapped her during an argument shortly before they separated.

Vega’s mother, Diana Vega, defended her daughter in the Times Herald-Record story. “Jessie would never do something so manipulative,” she said.

Avoiding hoaxes
Wish Upon a Wedding, a new charity featured on TODAYshow.com in July , grants weddings to people like Vega who say they have terminal illnesses and limited time to live. To avoid being tricked or embarrassed by hoaxes, that organization requires applicants to sign Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) forms giving doctors permission to communicate directly with Wish Upon a Wedding. That way doctors themselves can share clear information about a person’s diagnosis and prognosis.

(Note: Vega was not helped by Wish Upon a Wedding or any other formal charity; in contrast, people in her community spontaneously offered to help.)

Cancer hoaxes are not particularly common, but they do happen, and they sometimes result in jail time. To name just a few recent examples:

  • Dina Perouty-Leone, a Maryland mother of two teenagers, allegedly lied about having terminal stomach cancer in order to bilk friends and acquaintances out of money. She pleaded guilty to a charge of felony theft in June, and her sentencing is set for October. She faces a maximum of 15 years in prison.
Image: Ashley Kirilow with hair and without
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Ashley Anne Kirilow acknowledged that she went to great lengths to make herself look like a cancer patient at benefit concerts held for her.
  • Ashley Anne Kirilow, a 23-year-old from Ontario, Canada, admitted last month that she shaved her head and eyebrows and plucked out her eyelashes to make herself look like a chemotherapy patient. Kirilow capitalized on her “condition” to run a charity that brought in thousands of dollars in donations. “What I did was wrong,” Kirilow told the Toronto Star. “I was trying to be noticed.” Her parents described her as manipulative and desperate for fame and attention from others.
  • Last year Keele Maynor, a Tennessee woman in her late 30s, was charged with theft and forgery after maintaining a ruse for five years about having breast cancer. She collected donations of sick leave and money from co-workers until she resigned from her job with the city of Chattanooga in December 2008. “I started fabricating this story about cancer in 2003 and it has snowballed and finally came to a head,” she wrote in her resignation e-mail message. “I am relieved for two reasons. I don’t have to keep up the charade anymore and I am finally getting some help to figure out why I did this in the first place.”

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