Leukemia Hoax: Is It Illegal To Fake Cancer?

//

Efforts by a small Colorado community that began with the best of intentions — rallying around a dying child — ended with many people feeling used and betrayed by one of their own. According to a CBS News story:

A Colorado mountain community rallied around a dying child with leukemia only to find out the whole thing was a hoax, and the woman who made up the story probably won't face any charges. So many people fell for the story and tried to help the little boy who didn't even exist.

The hoax began a few weeks ago when a 22-year-old woman named Briana Augustenbourg told co-workers about Alexander Jordan, a nine-year-old family friend dying of leukemia. The little boy had been courageous through his treatments, and was a fan of the local high school football team.

The team invited Jordan to attend their game, released balloons in his honor and signed a football for him. Soon the local newspaper reported on the community outpouring of support for the brave little boy, and even ran an obituary for him.

However, it was soon discovered that the whole thing was a cruel hoax. Alexander Jordan never existed, and a photo that had circulated of him was taken from a cancer web site of a sick (but alive) patient.

Local authorities seem puzzled by the apparent lack of motive, and because Augustenbourg did not explicitly request donations of money or services on behalf of Jordan or herself, the police are unlikely to charge her with any crime. Though many are outraged by her actions, the fact is that lying about having a disease isn't a crime.

Often cancer fakers do it for attention and sympathy, not because they are necessarily trying to scam people out of money. Some people really do have a disease, not cancer but a mental illness known as a factitious disorder. People with this disorder pretend to have an illness (usually a terminal one) and often go to great lengths to maintain the hoax.

Just as it's not illegal to lie about having a disease, it's not illegal to lie about military service, as the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year. Lying or exaggerating military service is fairly common, from claiming medals not earned to telling war stories or claiming to have been a part of elite military units such as the SEALs. In all these cases, the lies are legally protected speech. However if those fabrications are presented in order to steal money or get free services, that is illegal.

Even when laws are broken and money is taken under false pretenses, those who fake illnesses are usually let off lightly. For example, in 2009 a young Canadian woman named Ashley Kirilow made news for fighting bravely against breast, ovarian, brain, and liver cancers, and raised money for her treatments.

Kirilow and her supporters started a charity called Change for a Cure, which asked people to donate their spare change so she could donate the money to the University of Alberta for cancer research. She also opened Facebook and Twitter accounts for the organization, with the slogan, "Together we can change the world one penny at a time." Fundraisers were held for her, and a Toronto charity flew terminally ill Ashley to Disney World as her dying wish. Altogether over $20,000 was raised for her.

Kirilow eventually admitted that she never had cancer. She had shaved her head and eyebrows to fake the signs of chemotherapy, and had spent much of the money given to her on personal expenses. She was arrested and charged with fraud.

Kirilow later defended her actions, saying she faked having cancer because she wanted attention from her family: "Originally it was because I was alone and had no one who cared about me. I just wanted (my family) to change their crazy ways and love me and be a normal family."

Kirilow was spared jail time, instead sentenced to 15 months house arrest and ordered to repay the victims of her scam.

Unlike Kirilow, Alexander Jordan was a completely fictional person. This case is reminiscent of Anthony Godby Johnson, the "author" of a 1995 memoir titled "A Rock and a Hard Place," about a young boy who endured child abuse, street life and even AIDS. Billed as an inspiring autobiography of an extraordinarily courageous boy, it even featured an introduction by Fred Rogers (better known as TV's Mr. Rogers).

The book was later revealed to be completely fiction; Anthony Godby Johnson never existed.

The legality of publishing faked memoirs isn't clear, though when James Frey's 2005 autobiography "A Million Little Pieces" was exposed as a hoax, his publisher had to offer over $2 million in refunds to readers who bought the book under false pretenses.

Credit: Corbis Images