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Iowa woman who made fake cancer claims on social media must pay restitution but stays out of prison

Oct 21, 2023, 11:59 AM

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa woman who falsely claimed to have cancer and documented her “battle” on social media will stay out of prison after a judge gave her probation and a suspended sentence.

Madison Russo, 20, never had pancreatic cancer, leukemia nor the football-sized tumor wrapped around her spine she that claimed in postings on TikTok, GoFundMe, Facebook and LinkedIn. But over 400 people sent her donations. As part of the 10-year suspended sentence handed down Friday, she was ordered to pay $39,000 in restitution and a $1,370 fine. If she stays out of trouble for three years of probation, she’ll stay free.

The Bettendorf woman pleaded guilty in June to first-degree theft. In court on Friday, Judge John Telleen declined a defense request that would have wiped the conviction off her record if she completes probation successfully. He said people who deal with her in the future should know that she once engaged in a “criminal scheme,” and that “serious crimes must have serious consequences.”

“Through this scheme, you deceived your friends, your family, your community, other cancer victims, charities and strangers who were motivated by your supposedly tragic story to donate to help support you,” the judge said.

Russo told the court she made her story up because she hoped her fake cancer battle would force her troubled family to focus on her.

“A lot of people have made speculation as to why I did this and how somebody who looked like they had everything together could have such a mess,” she said. “I didn’t do this for money or greed. I didn’t do this for attention. I did this as an attempt to get my family back together.”

Her sentence also includes 100 hours of community service. She paid the $39,000 restitution earlier, and the money was being held by the court. GoFundMe has already sent refunds to donors.

Her scam unraveled when medical professionals spotted discrepancies in her story online. Police subpoenaed her medical records and found she had never been diagnosed with cancer at any medical facility in the area. She was arrested in January.

Scott County prosecutor Kelly Cunningham recommended against prison time because Russo had no criminal history, had good grades in college, was employed and was unlikely to reoffend. That bothered Rhonda Miles, who runs a pancreatic cancer foundation in Nashville, Tennessee, that donated to Russo and testified at the hearing.

“It was devastating to sit there and watch the Scott County prosecuting attorney act like a defending attorney, so that was tough,” Miles said. “And I think she’ll have a lot of questions to answer from the locals on that at some point. Why were you defending this girl when you were supposed to be prosecuting?”

Russo apologized to the court and her victims, and said she wished she had sought out help regarding her family.

“I fully acknowledge what I did was wrong. And I’m incredibly sorry,” she said through sobs. “If there was anything I could do to take it back I would. The reality is I can’t.”

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Iowa woman who made fake cancer claims on social media must pay restitution but stays out of prison