Woman who faked cancer is ordered to pay $40,000 to strangers she deceived

Madison Russo, 20, claimed she had pancreatic cancer and leukaemia (GoFundMe)
Madison Russo, 20, claimed she had pancreatic cancer and leukaemia (GoFundMe)

An Iowa woman who faked having cancer has been ordered to pay more than $40,000 to strangers she deceived.

Madison Russo, 20, claimed she had pancreatic cancer and leukaemia, as well as a football-sized tumour wrapped around her spine, and set up fundraisers purportedly with the purpose of paying for her treatment.

Over 400 people donated more than $37,000 to the 20-year-old who documented her supposed “battle” on social media.

In one TikTok video, she told her followers she was able to keep her hair because she was undergoing “oral chemo”.

In another, she told her followers of her “pain” and “discomfort” following chemotherapy and radiation treatment, which she said had been followed by a fever.

Ms Russo’s story unravelled after she was exposed by medical professionals who spotted discrepancies in her story online.

Police then subpoenaed Ms Russo’s medical records and found she had never been diagnosed with cancer at any medical facility in the area.

This led to Ms Russo’s arrest in January, but the 20-year-old will avoid going to prison after she was handed a 10-year suspended sentence on Friday and ordered to pay $39,000 in restitution and a $1,370 fine.

The 20-year-old, who pleaded guilty in June to first-degree theft, is understood to have paid the $39,000 fine in full, while GoFundMe has already sent refunds to donors.

She was also sentenced to 100 hours of community service and three years of probation.

Scott County prosecutor Kelly Cunningham said she recommended against prison time for Ms Russo because she had no criminal history, had good grades in college, was employed and was unlikely to reoffend.

Meanwhile, Judge John Telleen declined a request on Friday by her defense team to have her conviction wiped from her record after three years 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.”

“Serious crimes must have serious consequences,” he said. “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 added.

Ms Russo has apologised to her victims, and insisted she did not fake a cancer diagnosis for “money or greed” or “attention”.

She 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.”

Madison Russo was arrested in January (AP)
Madison Russo was arrested in January (AP)

The 20-year-old added that 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.”

Rhonda Miles, who donated to Ms Russo and runs a pancreatic cancer foundation in Nashville, Tennessee, critcised the decision not to give Ms Russo any jail time.

“It was devastating to sit there and watch the Scott County prosecuting attorney act like a defending attorney, so that was tough,” she said in court.

“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?”