After tricking her husband and parents into thinking she was dying of cancer for seven years, an Alabama woman pleaded guilty on Tuesday to federal fraud charges after soliciting nearly half a million dollars in donations.
Jennifer Cataldo collected more than $200,000 since 2014 from her family, friends, and others online who thought their donations would help ease her claimed suffering, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. The 37-year old woman frequently turned to Facebook to solicit funds from friends and family, and sought out charitable donations from several organizations, including churches.
She pleaded guilty to charges of wire and bank fraud and has yet to be sentenced, though combined, the charges could potentially land her in jail for up to 50 years. As part of her plea agreement Cataldo will pay $79,629 in restitution to her identified victims.
"I hope to prove myself as a better person that has agreed to all guilt,'' Cataldo wrote in a June court letter. "And wants nothing more than to plead for forgiveness and do what is right in the eyes of God and the courts.”
The charges levied against Cataldo primarily stemmed from her use of two GoFundMe accounts in 2016. The first, titled, “Mom has Terminal Cancer Disney Trip,” raised more than $10,000, and asked people to help send Cataldo and her child on a vacation to Disney before she died from inoperable cancer “within the year.”
Later that year a friend set up another account, asking people to donate money to help offset Cataldo’s medical costs. After actively promoting the page for several months, Cataldo withdrew more than $27,000 from the GoFundMe and deposited it into her personal bank account.
Donations to Cataldo through GoFundMe have since been refunded, according to Bobby Whithorne, the company's spokesperson.
Cataldo was arrested in May 2017 on two counts of first-degree theft by deception after the Alabama Attorney General's Office and the FBI launched a joint investigation into her claims.
Alabama Political Reporter writer Josh Moon wrote in a May column that he had notified the authorities of Cataldo’s fraud after her parents had contacted him. Moon said Cataldo’s parents told him, based on conversations with Cataldo, that Alabama’s attorney general and governor withholding a $17 million legal settlement that she was owed.
The couple said they had spent their savings helping their cancer-stricken daughter pay her legal fees and that they wanted Moon to investigate the politicians.
In his investigation, however, Moon wrote that he found no evidence of a legal settlement and no evidence that Cataldo had cancer.
“I can’t understand why she would’ve done it,” Robert Flynn, Cataldo’s father, told Moon. “I just don’t know what would drive someone to do something like that. And I don’t know how she could keep us fooled for so long.”