Above: Sarah Cavanaugh in 2021, before her indictment. Photo courtesy of VFW Post 152, North Kingstown
East Greenwich resident Sarah Cavanaugh, 32, was sentenced Tuesday to 70 months, or just under 6 years, in federal prison. Cavanaugh pled guilty in August to wire fraud, identity theft, forged military discharge certificates, and fraudulent use of military medals. U.S. District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. remanded Cavanaugh into custody immediately following her sentencing.
McConnell said the fraud perpetrated was the “worst kind of victimization” and “beyond comprehension.”
Cavanaugh, a former licensed social worker employed by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs at the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center, falsely claimed to be a corporal in the Marine Corps. In addition, she claimed to be suffering from cancer that originated from exposure to burn pit sights in Iraq and Afghanistan and that she was dealing with PTSD from an IED blast. She went as far as to tell people at her gym that she was so wounded from her time in the military that she had trouble tying her shoes, which many routinely did for her.
According to court documents, Cavanaugh defrauded numerous charitable organizations, most significantly the Wounded Warrior Project, and received money and services of more than $250,000 from two individuals, nine veterans’ charities, and her employer.
Prosecutors said Cavanaugh falsified an Electronic Data Interchange Personal Identifier number – a unique number assigned to individuals affiliated with the Department of Defense. The number she used was the number of a former Marine who served from 2011 to 2016 and was employed as a civilian with the U.S. Navy in Newport. According to court documents, that individual did use VA services but did not remember crossing paths with Cavanaugh.
She also accepted over $5,000 from Justin Hsu, a veteran with stage 4 lung cancer she had befriended through the North Kingstown VFW Post 152. He gave her the money after telling him that she was having trouble covering the cost of her own fabricated cancer treatment.
In addition to monetary gains from her crimes, Cavanaugh was named commander of VFW Post 152 and attended events in Marine Corps dress blues. She went as far as to order Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals on the internet to display on her uniform despite never having served in the military at all.
Cavanaugh’s lawyer, Kensley R. Barrett, mentioned years of sexual abuse the defendant suffered as a child. Judge McConnell said he might have understood a victim of trauma seeking recognition from a group that has suffered their own trauma. “But, it went so much further than that,” he said, pointing to her having misappropriating funds designated for veterans.
In July 2022, an individual working for a nonprofit organization that helps provide monetary assistance to veterans looked into Cavanaugh and found that she had never served in the Marine Corps. Cavanaugh had reached out to that nonprofit seeking to have her fabricated medical bills reimbursed. This sparked an investigation by the Veterans Affairs Police resulting in Cavanaugh pleading guilty in August.
“These funds would have, without her insistent and convincing pleas for help, gone to real veterans in actual need of assistance with housing payments, child care, food insecurity, homelessness, addiction, and other battles our nation’s veterans fight every single day,” wrote David Ainsile, Commander of the North Kingston Memorial VFW Post 152 in his letter to the court regarding the case.
On Tuesday, Ainsile told the court Cavanaugh’s fraud was having long-lasting effects on his post. He said the VFW has experienced a “50 percent decrease in corporate donations” as a result of local businesses and organizations fearing their money will be used fraudulently.
“She stole the priceless commodity of hope,” said Michelle Anderson, a woman who Cavanaugh befriended at a gym they both used and who ended up giving Cavanaugh money.
Hsu said he felt “violated and betrayed” by Cavanaugh. He said the worst part was that he introduced her to his wife and children.
“I am sorry for what I did and the people I hurt,” Cavanaugh said Tuesday. “I will always carry this burden of shame.”
When it came time for McConnell to render his sentence, he said cases like these – where a person destroys trust – bother him the most. In particular, he said Justin Hsu’s story haunted him. “Mr. Hsu, I will live your pain for a long time. You just gave of what you had. To know that that love was destroyed … is the worst kind of victimization. It’s really awful when somebody betrays the human love that you showed. I hope in your healing you don’t lose that compassion.”
In addition to her sentence, McConnell ordered Cavanaugh to pay restitution to all victims perpetrated by her fraud, totaling $284,796.82. The court also issued an order that the federal government reinstate a total of 261 hours to federal employees who had donated their paid leave time to Cavanaugh.