Dina Leone, an uninsured mother of two from Baltimore, reached out to old friends through Facebook telling them she had stage-four stomach cancer and asking for help.
In daily Internet posts and text messages starting in 2008, Leone, 37, they said, described the pain of treatments and the struggle to pay for chemotherapy, often asking old high school classmates to help pay for doctors' visits or to help in fulfilling dying wishes, like visiting Disneyland.
Friends say they spent countless hours on the phone and visiting Leone in person for more than a year, lending a thoughtful ear and shoulder to cry on. Some apparently sent her thousands of dollars to help pay for her treatment. One even said she flew her to California for a final trip to the theme park.
"Last year, I was laid up in a hospital bed at home for months because of complications from surgery," Leone wrote in an e-mail to Vicky Squires, another cancer patient living in the Baltimore area, whom she found on Facebook. "I had a nurse come out three times a week and friends over twice a [day] to change packing and bandages."
But all of it -- the hospital bed, the surgeries, the nausea from treatment, the hair loss from chemotherapy -- was a lie, according to prosecutors.
After a Baltimore County grand jury indicted Leone in November on charges of theft and conspiracy, officials released her last week on $25,000 bail. A date for a criminal trial has yet to be set for the former real estate agent who admitted to a local television station that she pretended to be sick to friends.
Leone began more than a year ago, allegedly reaching out to old classmates from Dundalk High School through the Internet, telling them she was dying and asking them for money.
"It was just sort of like, 'Oh, my God, we haven't seen you in forever, how are you' type of thing and she's like, 'Oh, I'm not good. I'm dying of stage-four stomach cancer right off the bat,'" former classmate Wendy Vargo told ABC News affiliate WMAR-TV in Baltimore.
During several months, however, the women became increasingly suspicious. Rather than losing her hair slowly in clumps, Leone seemed to have lost it all overnight. She sent a photo of her bald head to friends along with an appeal for money. When one friend offered to write a check to her doctor rather than to "cash," Leone allegedly became enraged and told the woman's friends to stop talking to her because Leone said the woman had made a pass at her husband.
No Evidence of Cancer
Someone alerted police and an investigation began last summer. Authorities found no evidence corroborating Leone's cancer story, the assistant state attorney prosecuting the case said.
"She made specific comments about receiving treatment in specific hospitals," Baltimore County prosecutor Adam Lippe said. "We went to every area hospital to see if she was receiving treatment and they all said she wasn't a patient.
"When we executed a search warrant and searched her home, police found no medication or documentation that would indicate anyone living there was suffering from cancer. There was no physical or medical evidence at all," Lippe said.
In recent days, he said, he has been getting "more and more calls from more and more victims who sent her money." But the case for which Leone is being prosecuted is pinned to two women who say they sent her more than $12,000 in total.
One of them is a former classmate and wife of pro-skateboarder Buck Lasek. Jennifer Lasek said she sent Leone checks and paid for her to fly to California, where the couple live, to visit Disneyland.
As a witness in the case against Leone, Lasek is not permitted to comment and calls made to her were not returned.
But there were other alleged victims of Leone's deception, too, who never paid her a dime.
Vicky Squires says she "received a Facebook friend request from [Leone] from out of the blue," saying Leone was a cancer survivor living in the area and looking to share her experience.
Squires, despite being racked by sickness as a result of her own breast cancer and treatment, made an effort to visit Leone, cook meals for her family and provide emotional support.
Now, Squires said, she believes Leone befriended her in order to learn about cancer and use the information to buttress her story.
"We'd send each other texts daily to see how we were feeling," Squires said. "When I was feeling good, it felt good to visit her and know I was taking care of her. I'd take cards and flowers or candy to her. Once I brought her some meds because she said her doctor couldn't call the pharmacy and she was out of medication."
Leone Is Not the First to Be Accused
"It tears me up emotionally that she lied about something like this. I went through seven surgeries, it was hell and I'm still receiving treatment. The worst part is, I'm worried stories like this are going to make people reluctant to help someone who really is in need," Squires said.
Calls to Leone went unanswered. She has changed lawyersmultiple times, according to the state attorney's office, and has no legal counsel at this time.
Leone openly admitted to lying about having cancer in an exclusive interview with WJZ-TV in Baltimore last week.
"I've been pretending to be sick for over three and a half years," Leone said.
She lied about her illness and solicited money from friends because her husband was abusive, she said. Through a lawyer, Patrick Leone has denied the abuse allegations, which a judge dismissed Friday after the woman failed to appear in court to make formal charges against her husband.
It's unclear how Leone will plead when her case finally goes to trial.
Leone is not the first person accused of lying about an illness to take advantage of people's kindness.
In September 2009, a police dispatcher in Napa, Calif., was convicted of grand theft and sentenced to six months in prison and five years probation for lying to people about having ovarian cancer. Danielle Vanderpool had collected about $50,000 from individuals and organizations.
In 2006, Heather Faris, a special education teacher at a Boston-area high school, pleaded guilty to multiple larceny charges and engaging in a gross fraud. She admitted to cheating friends, colleagues and students out of $31,000 while lying for more than two years that she had stomach cancer.