DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa woman who falsely claimed she had cancer and documented her “struggle” on social media will be released from prison after a judge gave her probation and probation.
20-year-old Madison Russo never had pancreatic cancer, leukemia or the football-sized tumor around her spine, she claimed in posts on TikTok, GoFundMe, Facebook and LinkedIn. But over 400 people sent her donations. As part of the 10-year suspended sentence imposed Friday, she was ordered to pay $39,000 in restitution and pay a $1,370 fine. If she stays out of trouble for three years on probation, she will remain free.
The Bettendorf woman pleaded guilty to first-degree theft in June. In court Friday, Judge John Telleen rejected a defense motion that would have expunged the conviction from her record had she successfully completed probation. He said that people dealing with her in the future should know that she was once involved in a “criminal scheme” and that “serious crimes must have serious consequences.”
“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 support you,” the judge said.
Russo told the court she made up her story because she hoped her fake battle with cancer would force her worried family to focus on her.
“A lot of people have speculated about why I did this and how someone who looked like he had everything under control could cause such chaos,” she said. “I didn’t do this for money or greed. I didn’t do this for attention. I did this to bring my family back together.”
Her sentence also includes 100 hours of community service. She had paid the $39,000 restitution earlier and the money was withheld by the court. GoFundMe has already sent refunds to donors.
Her fraud was exposed when medical professionals discovered discrepancies in her story online. Police subpoenaed her medical records and discovered that she had not been diagnosed with cancer at any medical facility in the area. She was arrested in January.
Scott County Prosecutor Kelly Cunningham recommended against prison time because Russo had no criminal record, had good grades in college, was employed and was unlikely to reoffend. That bothered Rhonda Miles, who runs a pancreatic cancer foundation in Nashville, Tennessee, who donated to Russo and testified at the hearing.
“It was devastating to sit there and watch the Scott County prosecutor act like a defensive lawyer, that was tough,” Miles said. “And I think at some point she will have to answer a lot of questions from the locals. Why did you defend this girl when you were supposed to go to court?”
Russo apologized to the court and her victims and said she wished she had sought help regarding her family.
“I fully admit that what I did was wrong. And I’m incredibly sorry,” she said, sobbing. “If I could do anything to take it back, I would. The reality is that I can’t.”