Middle School Special Education Teacher Allegedly Faked Cancer

PHTO Leslie Herneisey, a three time nominated teacher of the year has been arrested for allegedly lying about having an inoperable form of brain cancer to friends and colleagues.PlayABC News
WATCH Teacher Charged in Brain Tumor Hoax

Leslie Herneisey, nominated three times to be Pennsylvania's teacher of the year, has been arrested and charged with lying to friends and colleagues about having an inoperable form of brain cancer.

Police say Herneisey, 51, a middle school special education teacher in Middletown, Pennsylvania, allegedly conned her school district to give her time off from work because of her feigned illness. She also allegedly accepted money colleagues raised to send her on a free trip to Disney World.

VIDEO: Police say Leslie Herneisey told peers that she had an inoperable brain tumor.Play
Teacher Charged in Brain Tumor Hoax

"I think this is something that spiraled out of control and got bigger than she expected. Once you commit a falsehood as big as she did, it's kind of hard to go back on," Detective Robert Appleby of the Lower Swatara Police Department told ABC News in an interview.

Herneisey's alleged web of deceit began as much as a decade ago, police say. According to Appleby, police have records showing she allegedly began claiming she had a brain tumor at least 9 years ago, in order to be granted sick leave.

"She was granted sick bank on numerous occasions over those nine years for the tumor and it might go back as long as 16 years," Appleby said.

"She is very depressed," said her lawyer, Terrence McGowan, in an interview with ABC News. He said he believes the whole web of lies began when Herneisey, suffering from years of clinical depression, began to use the cancer ruse as a way to stay home from work. McGowan said he did not yet know what plea he would enter on his client's behalf.

"That's what started this whole thing and it got out of control. It's not like she was at the beach on her days off, she was home and in bed with the lights off," McGowan said.

Herneisey, took things a step further last year, police say, when she allegedly submitted a letter to the Middletown School District claiming she now had an inoperable form of brain cancer and needed eight weeks off to undergo chemotherapy.

The school district and her colleagues rallied around the 25-year veteran teacher and, according to Appleby, they sent her story to the Make a Wish Foundation in hopes Herneisey and her family would be treated to something special.

"Her application was denied because the Make a Wish Foundation found that her medical documents were not forthcoming," Appleby said.

The rejection might have tipped people off to inconsistencies in Herneisey's story -- but instead, it only pushed her fellow teachers to try harder.

"Her coworkers then raised funds and sent her and her family on an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World,' Appleby said.

Appleby says it was a testament to the reputation Herneisey had as an educator.

"She was a great teacher," he said.

Teacher Allegedly Faked Cancer, Got Free Trip to Disney World

In addition to her nominations for teacher of the year, the Middletown District's website says she received a local award for educational leadership.

"Her peers always enjoyed working with her, and students loved her as a teacher," Middletown Area School District Superintendent Richard Weinstein told ABC affiliate WHTM-TV in an interview.

Herneisey's claim to be fighting cancer came under suspicion when, according to police, the school district began to notice she wasn't actually showing any signs of inoperable cancer or chemotherapy, and rumors began to swirl that it was all made up.

"In April the school district became aware of rumors that her medical condition did not exist. So in response the district started a review of the medical documents she submitted stating she had this inoperable form of brain cancer," Appleby said.

What the district noticed, according to Appleby, was that the medical documents she submitted -- including a Federal Family and Medical Leave Act form with a cover letter -- were not on any official letterhead, even though many said they were signed by Dr. Jonas M. Sheehan, a neurosurgeon at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

"The district sent letter to the doctor, and he said he had no idea who this woman is. At that point they turned it over to us and we confirmed he had never treated her," Appleby said.

According to police records, the district confronted Herneisey in late May and she allegedly admitted to forging the documents. She resigned from her job.

"I arrested her on July 7th, she turned herself in with her attorney," Appleby said.

Appleby said Herneisey wrote letters of apology to the surgeon and the district, and appeared frightened to be in the trouble she was in.

"This is the first time she's ever had a run-in with the law. She isn't the typical person who would do something like this. She was very nervous, very emotional, and very regretful," Appleby said.

Teacher Allegedly Faked Cancer, Got Free Trip to Disney World

Herneisey was charged with 12 felony counts of forgery and was released on $10,000 bond.

Right now the district attorney is only pursuing the forgery charges, Appleby said, with hopes that teachers and friends who donated money for her trip to Disney World will pursue that matter in civil court.

According to her lawyer McGowan, Herneisey is currently seeking medical help as she awaits her arraignment on Aug. 5.

"She's had better days. Right now she's pretty miserable," said McGowan.

Herneisey's husband and children had no idea she had told people she had brain cancer, McGowan said.

"Her family knew nothing about it, it shocked everyone. This has been tough on her family, there's a lot of tension there with her husband," he said.

"She's in counseling, and we're trying to get her to the right people. I just hope in the end whoever does the judgment on her takes into consideration all the good she's done," McGowan said.

Appleby said he believes Herneisey is a good person who made a terrible mistake, telling a lie that got out of control.

"How do you say 'just kidding, I don't have a brain tumor'? At that point, you're committed," he said. "She got to a position where she created this monster and she had no way to kill it."