A generous New York bridal shop owner never questioned the heartbreaking story of a woman who claimed to have cancer and wanted to marry before she died. The bride's story opened the hearts and wallets of her community who donated thousands of dollars to pay for her wedding and honeymoon.
But months after the wedding, it was revealed that Jessica Vega, 25, lied about her terminal illness and had duped everyone. Now, she has been arrested and charged with six felonies and one misdemeanor and could face up to four years in prison for each felony charge.
Keri Ciastko is the co-owner of Bliss Bridal, which was Bella Couture when she first met Vega in 2010. Vega came into the shop in search of a wedding dress and said she was getting married quickly. Ciastko noticed Vega's short hair.
"It came up in conversation that she had lost her hair due to this cancer," Ciastko told ABCNews.com today. "She pulled at my heartstrings. I've lost a lot of family members to cancer, so I did everything I could to help her."
The shop provided Vega with her wedding dress, a seamstress for alterations, the wig for her wedding, shoes and Ciastko even used her own money sometimes to help the new mom, who said she was struggling financially.
Other community members donated money, wedding photos, plane tickets for a honeymoon in Aruba and a time share for the honeymoon.
"It seemed so genuine. I never questioned it," Ciastko said.
The two developed a friendship and Ciastko remembered getting angry when her husband once asked her if she was sure the story was true.
"I said, 'Who would lie about something like that?'" Ciastko recalled. "I never questioned it and I was floored when it came up that it might not be true."
Months after the wedding, Vega's husband Michael O'Connell called Ciastko and asked her if she was sitting down. When she asked why, he said, "Jessica lied about everything and she's not sick. She pulled the wool over everybody's eyes."
"I didn't want to believe him," she said. "I knew they were going through some issues, but it just kind of spiraled from there."
Ciastko spoke to Vega once after that and Vega told her she was not lying. Ciastko has had no communication with her since then.
"Now, it makes me angry," Ciastko said. "It was very hard. It's pitting someone's worst fears against them."
The couple, who already had a young daughter, married in May 2010 and four months later, Vega's new husband accused her of faking the illness, according to the Time Herald-Record.
O'Connell allegedly discovered that Vega had forged a letter that was supposedly from a doctor to prove her illness. He called his local paper and reported the scheme.
The couple divorced and O'Connell moved to Virginia, but she later joined him there and they had a second child, the paper reported.
O'Connell told the paper that his wife needed mental health treatment, not prison. He could not be reached for comment by ABCNews.com.
Vega was arrested in Virginia on April 3 and extradited to New York, according to the attorney general's office.
She was charged with one count of scheme to defraud, five counts of grand larceny and one count of criminal possession of a forged instrument for the allegedly fake doctor's letter.
"By pretending to have a terminal illness, Vega inexcusably took advantage of the community's hearts and minds, and profited off of their generosity," Orange County Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement. "Our office will hold this individual accountable for fleecing the public through lies and deception."
Ciastko isn't seeking reimbursement or taking legal action, but said she has been saddened by the situation and worries about how it could affect others who are actually in need.
"I am very betrayed by what happened. I am. I feel like the generosity of so many people was put in jeopardy, which is what's so sad," Ciastko said. "Unfortunately, I think she maybe ruined it for people that really could use the help."
But Ciastko said she hasn't been jaded by the experience. "Given the opportunity to do it again, I would in a heartbeat," she said.
Vega was arraigned in Orange County Court on Friday and pleaded not guilty. Her bail was set at $10,000 cash or $30,000 bond.
She is expected to be back in court on April 20.