VA Social Worker Who Posed as a Hero Marine Dying of Cancer Pleads Guilty to Fraud


In a federal court hearing on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, in Providence, Rhode Island, Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 31, admitted that she falsely portrayed herself as a wounded US Marine veteran who had served overseas. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

A Rhode Island woman who posed as hero Marine dying of cancer, bilking charities out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, finally told a judge it was all a lie.

Appearing on a video monitor Tuesday, Aug. 9, in Providence, Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, 31, admitted to Chief US District Court Judge John J. McConnell Jr. that, while she was a licensed social worker for the US Department of Veteran Affairs at the Rhode Island Veterans Affairs Medical Center, she used the records of a real veterans, including one sick with cancer, to create her bogus identity.

Festooned with replica Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals she’d bought, Cavanaugh appeared at public functions wearing the uniform of a Marine combat veteran, sometimes using the last name Bregler. She’d never served a day of her life in the military.

She’s slated to be sentenced by McConnell on Nov. 10 — the day Marines worldwide celebrate the birthday of the Corps — for wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, the use of a forged military discharge certificate, and fraudulent use of military medals.

sarah cavanaugh vfw hat

A woman identified as Sarah Bregler poses for a photo posted to Facebook on June 4, 2019. According to the post, she was Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 152’s junior vice commander at the time and had just helped present scholarships on behalf of the organization. Photo courtesy of Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Rhode Island/Facebook.

A woman identified as Sarah Bregler poses for a photo posted to Facebook on June 4, 2019. According to the post, she was VFW Post 152 junior vice commander at the time and had just helped present scholarships on behalf of the organization. Photo courtesy of Facebook/VFW Department of Rhode Island.

“Every day, thousands of American men and women honorably serve this country in uniform,” US Attorney Zachary A. Cunha said in a prepared statement released after Cavanaugh’s hearing. “They sacrifice for our safety, putting themselves in harm’s way, often without praise or public recognition, and they deserve our thanks and our respect. This defendant sought to trade on that respect — respect she did not earn, evoked by a uniform to which she had no claim — by pretending that she was a United States Marine battling stage IV cancer, in order to trick generous members of the public into lining her pockets. Her conduct is disgraceful, and it richly warrants her conviction today as a federal felon.”

Under the terms of a plea agreement Cavanaugh inked with federal prosecutors on July 1, she will serve at least two years behind bars. But the judge could punish her with up to 24 years in a federal penitentiary, plus a $450,000 fine.

Neither Cavanaugh nor her attorneys responded to Coffee or Die Magazine‘s messages seeking comment.

Investigators estimated she’d received roughly $250,000 in cash donations and services reserved for wounded warriors.

Cavanaugh has agreed to apply all the proceeds from the recent sale of her real estate — $82,489.73 — as restitution to those she scammed. But the judge can order her to pay more.

“What Sarah Cavanaugh did is despicable and an insult to the brave men and women who have selflessly risked their lives, and made real sacrifices in service to this country,” Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division, said in a prepared statement. “Now this fraudster is a convicted felon for claiming valor where there is none, and for swindling more than a quarter of a million dollars in benefits and charitable donations from unsuspecting citizens who wanted nothing more than to help deserving veterans.”

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Carl came to Coffee or Die Magazine after stints at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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