BEAUTY IN THE FRIDGE

A Sick Scam

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faking sick

Damien Maloney

In the fall of 2015 and spring of 2016, Sarah Delashmit, a thirtyish woman from Illinois, attended Camp Summit in Dallas, Texas, which since 1947 has served children and adults (“ages 6–99”) with disabilities. Delashmit had muscular dystrophy, and was paralyzed from the neck down. She had a sophisticated power wheelchair and breathing machine, but still needed help with basic tasks, like showering, getting dressed, eating, going to the bathroom, and changing her menstrual products.

Camp Summit exists to accommodate just such needs. Activities like archery, swimming, and arts and crafts are adapted so that all campers can participate. “It’s amazing to see someone who’s 75 years old with cerebral palsy get to ride a horse for the first time ever,” says Sam Ryan, a former staff member. In 2015, Delashmit got to ride a horse, too. Racheal Ryan, Sam’s wife (they met as counselors at Camp Summit), sat behind her in the saddle, supporting Delashmit as they cantered across the warm grass. Delashmit was so delighted that she drew a picture for Racheal: a stick-figure horse topped with two stick-figure people, one brunette (Delashmit) and one redhead (Racheal). “One of the staff helped guide her hand because she didn’t have movement in her arm,” Racheal says.

Delashmit’s upbeat attitude and positive energy made her beloved by counselors and campers alike. They played pranks on each other, covering items in Saran wrap and filling Oreos with toothpaste. “There was one little girl in particular who was very attached to Sarah because she was also in a wheelchair and she wanted to be just like Sarah when she grew up,” Racheal says. “It was so cool for her to see an older version of herself.”

On the night of a camp party, Delashmit told Sam and Racheal that she wished some awesome guy would ask her to dance, but that she knew it wouldn’t happen. A staff member overheard her, and he came over and picked her right up out of her chair, whisking her around the room to the rhythm of the music. “When she sat back down, she told me her dream had come true,” Sam says. Delashmit’s story, her sessions of barrier-free adventure and camaraderie, is exactly the kind of heartwarming experience Camp Summit routinely delivers. But it was all based on a lie.

For at least 18 years, Delashmit has played the puppet master, calculating each lie and directing each narrative like her own small, pathetic god.

During Delashmit’s second session, someone called Camp Summit and tipped them off, telling them Delashmit didn’t need a wheelchair. That she didn’t have muscular dystrophy. And that, in fact, she was more than capable of walking, bathing, eating, and swapping out a tampon all on her own. When Camp Summit’s director confronted her, Delashmit simply stood up and waltzed out the door, like Keyser Söze losing his limp at the end of The Usual Suspects. “I was hurt because I thought we had a bond,” Sam says. Racheal notes that Delashmit’s wheelchair stayed on camp property for months. “I can’t believe she played us like that. She’s this person who doesn’t even exist,” Sam adds.

In January, Delashmit was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for multiple counts of fraud. In addition to her sessions at Camp Summit, she was convicted for pretending to be a breast cancer survivor from approximately October 2017 to March 2018, during which time she gained a bicycle and traveled to a Florida conference hosted by the Young Survival Coalition, a nonprofit organization for young adults with cancer. But the details of her conviction—salacious and unfathomable as they might be—fail to capture the full reach of Delashmit’s harm. Because Delashmit has been co-opting the identity of a sick person not just for the last five years, but for nearly two decades. First online and then in person, sometimes making up details about her own life and sometimes pretending to be other people, she has faked cancer or some form of degenerative disease consistently over the years, pulling well-meaning strangers into her web of deception.

Some of Delashmit’s former friends suggest she’s driven by a desire for sympathy and attention; like the many women who overwhelmingly perpetrate these kinds of crimes, she was desperately hungry for the compassion mobilized in response to illness and impediments. But her extreme example also points to another potential motivation: the thrills that come along with close manipulation. “There are some patients who manifest what we call ‘duping delight,’ where their primary motive is the gratification that comes with hoodwinking other people so dramatically,” says Marc Feldman, professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa and coauthor of Dying to Be Ill: True Stories of Medical Deception. “They are after sympathy and attention, but there can also be a sadistic streak, where it’s inherently gratifying to mislead and control other people.”

Over and over, for at least 18 years, Delashmit has played the puppet master, calculating each lie and directing each narrative like her own small, pathetic god.

faking sick

Damien Maloney

Nearly two years before her conviction, in the spring of 2019, Delashmit appeared on the Dr. Phil show, where furious victims from both Camp Summit and the breast cancer con confronted her. On camera, Delashmit seemed tickled by the opportunity to tell her story, and to have her makeup professionally done and her medium-length wavy chestnut hair styled straight. When Dr. Phil pointed out that perhaps remorse would be a preferable reaction to amusement, Delashmit followed his cues. She agreed when Dr. Phil asked her if she considers herself “deviously manipulative.” But she also couldn’t avoid turning herself into the object of misfortune by blaming her problems on a lying addiction, and stating that she’s just “a really lonely person.”

But the Dr. Phil episode was just the tip of the iceberg. “She’s been at this a very long time in multiple communities,” says Andrea Smith, who has been chasing Delashmit since 2006. “It’s terrifying.” Smith has long moderated a support community for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a severe form of muscular dystrophy that is rare in adults (children with SMA typically do not make it far beyond their second birthday). “We were burying children left and right at the time I discovered this community,” she says.

Smith first encountered Delashmit through an online community called SMA Support (a group independent of Smith’s own online community), where Delashmit posted as two different women: “Megan” (the name of a high school classmate of hers), and “Connie,” a woman who was supposedly the mother of a child with SMA (in reality, Connie is Delashmit’s mother’s name). “Connie” once wrote: “My sons name is Drake and his birthday is November 6th…. [He] was [also] diagnosed when he was 10 months old, I knew something was wrong when he was not pulling up like other kids his age and he was not active at all. I’m so scared for my little boy everything I read about SMA is like a death sentence.”

“She played dumb, she played vulnerable, and she just kept at it. And it escalated.”

Several moms on the chat noticed something off about Connie. The progression and treatment of SMA is very specific, and Connie said some things that didn’t sit right. So the SMA moms started Googling and found that Connie’s email address had been used to post on Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) chat boards since 2003, but the person writing the posts on that site was supposedly an adult with muscular dystrophy.

Smith kept poking around and found the same email address had been used on a forum for teenagers with cancer; there, the writer claimed to have acute lymphocytic leukemia. Smith believes the same email address was also used to pose as a woman with a younger sister named Gabby with SMA. When the poster posted a picture of “Gabby,” one of the chat members recognized the girl as 2001 MDA National Goodwill Ambassador Sarah Schwegel. “You can’t just snag pictures of some kids in wheelchairs, claim them as your own, and not expect us to know who they are,” Smith says.

Smith reached out to the FBI, which wasn’t interested in pursuing the case. “They thought it was penny-ante stuff,” she says. But Smith persisted, and the FBI put her in touch with the police in Delashmit’s hometown of Highland, Illinois. Officers were dispatched to straighten out the then 21-year-old Delashmit. When confronted by police, Delashmit admitted that she had fabricated various personas; that she didn’t have SMA; and that she was an only child. Police perceived her as a young and awkward person who had made a mostly harmless mistake. But Smith was convinced it was more than that. “Sarah was calculating,” Smith says. “She played dumb, she played vulnerable, and she just kept at it. And it escalated.”

While the extent of Delashmit’s deception is extraordinary, the act of pretending to be sick to gain both sympathy and material goods is increasingly familiar. Across the U.S., women—usually younger women who, according to Feldman, commonly work in health care—are faking sickness, combining a fabricated diagnosis with fundraising on GoFundMe or Facebook.

Factitious disorder was added to the DSM-III in 1980. It describes a serious mental illness in which someone deceives others by feigning illness, actually making themselves ill, or inflicting self-injury—and the majority of people with the disorder are women in their twenties and thirties. Feldman describes it as a maladaptation for addressing unmet needs. “They may be dissatisfied with their lot in life, and have few resources and few skills, and this is something they can pull off brilliantly,” he says. “It validates them and gives them a sensation of mastery over their lives, which in fact are out of control.” Unlike men, who are more prone to inflict violence against others, Feldman says women who struggle with the disorder tend to internalize and seek attention in a more socially acceptable manner: “Men end up in prison; women end up in doctor’s offices. They act out in ways that tend to keep them within the normal social structures. We all feel sympathy for people who appear to be patients.”

Delashmit defies the convention of the typical GoFundMe scammer who targets their nearest and dearest. She instead has a pattern of infiltrating support groups and advocacy organizations—safe spaces filled with strangers who offer services for individuals who are often neglected. She preys on people who are both largely unsuspecting and have a proven reservoir of deep compassion and generosity.

“They may be dissatisfied with their lot in life, and have few resources and few skills, and this is something they can pull off brilliantly.”

Britta, who was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in 2015 at age 33, met Delashmit through the Young Survival Coalition and spent hours on the phone with her, counseling her about available resources. “She told me that she’d been diagnosed with stage IV, that her husband had left her, that she had kids, and that she didn’t know how to go about telling her kids or family,” she says. “She wasn’t sure if she could afford treatment; she wasn’t sure how she was going to survive and take care of her kids. It came across as very painful for her to talk about. And I understood that because it was painful for me.”

It’s no coincidence many victims of this type of fraud are women. When people get sick, it’s disproportionately women who mobilize: According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, women are more likely than men to give to crowdfunding campaigns to help someone in need. And a 2019 study of GoFundMe contributions found that women donors express significantly more empathy in the messages left for fundraisers. “There’s almost a codependency that develops in some of these communities,” Feldman says. “Women have told me that they used to spend 12 hours a day online with the poser. And then you have to ask not only why the poser did it, but why the supporter had such a buy-in.” In these cases, the con artist–victim relationship can be complicated by the pleasures of generosity. Delashmit lied to and mistreated her victims. But she also gave them an opportunity to be their best selves—useful, helpful, and caring. When women talk about being abused by Delashmit, they often sound like the victims of romance scammers. After such a symbiotic relationship, after giving and baring so much, the humiliation is doubly powerful.

Claire Simpson* shared a suite with Delashmit at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 2003. Along with her other two suitemates, they became fast friends. “She was just a regular, quiet, unassuming girl,” says Simpson, who still lives in Illinois. Delashmit told the group that she had had leukemia as a child and had attended a special camp for kids with cancer. Her father was a successful doctor, she claimed, who took her on elaborate ski trips. Delashmit said she was a premed student, hoping to follow in his footsteps.

In reality, Delashmit’s dad was not a doctor. Smith says he has long been out of the picture. Instead, Delashmit lived with her mother in a modest bungalow in Illinois. While she in many ways appears to have maintained a bisected life—going on ski trips with family while pretending to have a terminal or degenerative illness to others—she also drew those closest to her into that parallel universe. She sometimes used their names as her online pseudonyms and misrepresented their photos, claiming one cousin was her husband and another was her sister.

When Delashmit announced her leukemia was back and she would have to begin treatment, her college roommates rallied around her—constantly tending to her, and ensuring she wasn’t alone as she managed doctors’ visits. One day, Delashmit appeared in tears, with fistfuls of hair she found on her pillow, a side effect of treatment, she claimed. Another time, during a movie night, someone chose A Walk to Remember, in which Mandy Moore’s character dies from leukemia. “Sarah got so upset,” Simpson says. “She was like, ‘I can’t believe you chose this movie.’ She made such a huge deal that my roommate ended up yelling at Sarah’s friend for being insensitive.” And there’s one other thing Simpson remembers. After Delashmit appeared crying, clutching clumps of her fallen-out hair, a friend offered to cut off all her own hair in solidarity. “Sarah just sat back and watched [her do it] and seemed very pleased with herself,” says Simpson, who notes that Delashmit never actually lost her own hair. “It was very unsettling.”

“There’s no way to stop her. She’s just going to keep popping up like an old bad whack-a-mole.”

There’s an interesting double side to Delashmit’s deceit. On one hand, she tells lies centered around terminal or debilitating illnesses that are carefully calibrated to evoke concern, compassion, and even pity. On the other, she tells lies that might elevate her status, inspire envy, or suggest that she’s moving along through some of life’s common milestones.

After college, Simpson and Delashmit became friends on social media but otherwise drifted apart. Around 2008, Simpson noticed Delashmit had updated her status as engaged and then married. Then she got pregnant and had triplets, frequently posting pictures. “They were adorable babies, and I sent her a message saying, ‘Congratulations, that’s awesome,’ ” Simpson says. But then a mutual friend contacted Simpson. “She said, ‘Oh my God, you won’t guess, but Sarah has been using this lady’s pictures of her kids,’ ” Simpson says. Delashmit had been posting another woman’s pictures—all from the neck down—from pregnancy through to the early months of the babies’ lives. Someone recognized the triplets on Delashmit’s profile and told their actual mom what was going on. “And then Sarah just blocked everyone or deleted her social media, and I guess just started again somewhere else.”

That wasn’t the only lie about pregnancy that would get Delashmit into trouble. In October 2012, while working as a staff nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City, Delashmit announced she was pregnant with twins. But in June of 2013, she relayed terrible news: She had delivered the twins prematurely and lost both. In order to further the lie, Delashmit shoved pillows under her work uniform and carried around ultrasound pictures, almost certainly of someone else’s pregnancy. When a workplace investigation—it’s unclear what prompted it—was launched into her conduct, Delashmit told the investigator this was at least the second time she’d falsely presented herself as pregnant. She lost her license to practice in Oklahoma in May of 2014, and subsequently in additional states.

“She has to create these stories and characters. Why wasn’t the truth good enough?”

Delashmit’s yearning for family life—or at least the appearance of it—emerged in other perverse ways, too. Erin Johnson, who has cerebral palsy, met Delashmit as a camper in 2005 at a California camp for children and adults with disabilities, where Delashmit was working as an able-bodied counselor. Delashmit soon glommed onto Johnson and took over her primary care. “From then on, we were inseparable,” Johnson says. For 12 years, Johnson and Delashmit spent a considerable portion of their respective days talking on the phone or online, and they visited each other a handful of times. “I was really drawn to her,” Johnson says. “She seemed like she needed someone.”

A couple of years after they met, Delashmit told Johnson that she was getting married to a man named Adam, sending a picture of her fiancé. (Johnson says she now knows the photos of Adam were actually of Delashmit’s cousin, James.) Multiple children soon followed. And then, one day in 2008 or 2009, when Delashmit and Johnson were talking on the phone, an email appeared in Johnson’s inbox. A man named Jeff said that he had seen Johnson’s profile on a dating website and thought she was pretty. Johnson and Jeff exchanged messages with Delashmit’s encouragement. As Jeff described himself to Johnson, Delashmit thought he sounded familiar. She told Johnson to ask for a picture. When Jeff sent one, Johnson texted it to Delashmit, who was ecstatic: She knew Jeff. He was her husband’s best friend. “She played it as if it was just a coincidence,” Johnson says.

Johnson and Jeff’s relationship evolved over the next two months, as they chatted over MSN Messenger, with Jeff professing his love. And then, one day, tragedy struck. Delashmit called and said Adam and Jeff were in a car accident, and she was rushing to the hospital. She told Johnson later that Jeff was dead, and then supported her friend through the grief. “The possibility of him was really nice,” Johnson says. “If you’re disabled, there are not a lot of guys who want to take care of you full time. It’s something you think is never going to happen. I feel like she used that against me.” (While Johnson can’t say for sure or prove that Delashmit was posing as “Jeff,” she thinks it’s possible given her fraud conviction and pattern of behavior.)

“These services exist for disabled folks because they have so little—they’re just barely surviving—and here she is stealing from them.”

Johnson is still at a bit of a loss to fully explain Delashmit’s behavior, which was both exploitative and just plain bizarre. She suspects that it stems from some combination of mental illness and loneliness, that Delashmit has an aching unhappiness with her actual life. “She has to create these stories and characters,” she says. “Why wasn’t the truth good enough?”

Johnson suspects that Delashmit didn’t just use her for cheap thrills, but to sharpen her skills. During their friendship, Delashmit reported a litany of ailments, often temporary, from cancer and Ebola to SMA. “She knew how to place her hands,” says Johnson of Delashmit’s SMA appearance. “If you have certain disabilities, you develop certain postures, and she did that. I think the reason she was so drawn to me was so she could study my life and figure out how to be someone like me.”

Efforts to reach Delashmit for comment have been unsuccessful; the only phone number I could find for her has been disconnected, and her lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. In the financial affidavit she prepared for her fraud case, Delashmit presents a fairly mundane existence. She worked for at least a year at an Amazon fulfillment center in Edwardsville, Illinois. She also picked up some extra cash working for DoorDash. She owes $70,000 in deferred student loans, identifies as single, and has no dependents. A colleague at Amazon told me Delashmit used to tell people she had a husband in the military and a disabled son—until the Dr. Phil episode aired. Other court documents serve as an inventory of ill-gotten financial assistance and donated items, with prosecutors leaning hard on the lost opportunities for members of the communities she infiltrated. “These services exist for disabled folks because they have so little—they’re just barely surviving—and here she is stealing from them,” Smith says. But while the financial fraud is the least of the damage inflicted by Delashmit, there are few mechanisms in the criminal justice system to deal with emotional injury. “What she did to so many of us isn’t illegal,” Johnson says. Fraud occasionally happens in the not-for-profit world, but these services still rely heavily on trust and decency.

After Delashmit got up and walked out of Camp Summit, it became clear she had violated a core social compact: When people ask for help, we can believe them. “It put this doubt in my head,” Racheal Ryan says. “I went around for a little while, looking at campers in wheelchairs, and thinking that maybe they were faking it. It was such an awful feeling, walking around this place I love, wondering if these people I love were just another Sarah Delashmit.”

It’s tempting to attribute Delashmit’s outrageous behavior to mental health issues—“she must be sick” is a common refrain. It’s a highly sympathetic assessment perhaps disproportionately applied to white women when they commit egregiously antisocial acts. Many people she’s harmed believe it is more a question of whether Delashmit makes an active choice to perpetrate these cons over and over—and whether there’s anything that might stop her. “It may be a difficult matter to overcome because we don’t have effective treatments for consistent malingerers or for sociopathic individuals,” Feldman says. “It sounds like she’s revealing the extent to which she really doesn’t empathize with anyone else.”

Smith says when Delashmit was sentenced, she expressed less remorse than one might think prudent, and that she doesn’t appear to recognize the gravity of her actions. Delashmit often redirects back to her personal struggles, utilizing a theory of victimization that enables her to avoid taking on full personal responsibility for her actions. So even though Delashmit is now in prison, Smith is determined to keep sounding the alarm. She knows it’s a near-impossible battle to win if Delashmit is determined to keep doing what she’s been doing, both online and off. “After we chased her off last time, she tried again, and then she tried again,” Smith says. “There’s no way to stop her. [She’s] just going to keep popping up like an old bad whack-a-mole. This really seems like all she has in her life.”

This story appears in the September 2021 issue.

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