SANDUSKY, Mich. (WWJ/AP) - A judge sentenced a Michigan woman to a year behind bars Wednesday in an "almost mind-boggling" scam cheating an insurance company and swindling big-hearted people in small communities who believed she had cancer.
Authorities said it was all an extraordinary lie: No doctor has ever stepped forward to even suggest that Sara Ylen had cancer.
Ylen, 38, already is serving a minimum five-year prison sentence in another case of deceit, and the one-year punishment for fraud will run at the same time.
Ylen claimed she developed cervical cancer from a sexual assault in 2001 and was regularly treated at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Ill. But Mercy Hospice cut her off in 2011 when tests showed her life wasn't in peril. By then, her insurer had paid about $100,000 for the service. The cancer hospital later said it had no record of her as a patient.
Meanwhile, people in small communities in Michigan's Thumb region who didn't know about the doubts by medical professionals continued to support Ylen. In 2012, she was in a wheelchair at a Croswell Wesleyan Church auction and spaghetti dinner that raised $10,800 for everyday bills.
In January, Ylen pleaded no contest to fraud through false pretenses and false statements. A no-contest plea in Michigan is treated like a regular conviction for the purpose of a sentence.
"All of these fraudulent acts that you perpetrated on so many people, and the extent that you went to perpetrate them, is almost mind-boggling," Sanilac County Circuit Judge Donald Teeple said. "You took advantage of the goodwill and generosity of people who were more than willing to assist you, all based on lies."
Ylen, who owes about $122,000 to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, was silent in court and has never given a public explanation. Wearing prison shackles and an oversized coat, she also declined to comment as officers escorted her to a van for a return trip to prison, where she is serving a sentence for falsely accusing two men of rape.
Outside court, defense attorney David Heyboer didn't shed much light on the case, either.
"I don't know what took place. I'm not a doctor," he told The Associated Press as he walked swiftly to his car. "I don't know if you're going to have a heart attack in a minute."
Prosecutor Brenda Sanford acknowledged that some people might consider the sentence to be light. But she said the judge simply was following Michigan law.
"There was nothing he could do to give her additional time," Sanford said.
The public first learned about Ylen in 2003 when she agreed be featured in "Sara's Story," an award-winning series in the Port Huron Times Herald, in which she talked about being raped in daylight in the parking lot of a major retail store two years earlier.
James Grissom, an off-duty Meijer employee with a past sex-related conviction, was charged after Ylen said her attacker, like Grissom, had a skull tattoo. Despite insisting his innocence, Grissom was found guilty in 2003 and sentenced to at least 15 years in prison, an enhanced punishment because Ylen said her attacker gave her a sexually transmitted disease.
In doing the newspaper series, Ylen said she wanted people to see her as a "victor," not a "victim." Readers inspired by the series started a fund to send her to community college. In 2009, the newspaper reported that Ylen was near death, a victim of cervical cancer that had spread to her bones. Friends raised money for her, bathed her, doted on her two sons and cut her grass in 100-degree heat.
Grissom was eventually released from prison in 2012 after a judge threw out his rape conviction. Police in Bakersfield, Calif., said Ylen previously made up rape allegations during a 2001 trip there, evidence that wasn't available to Grissom to challenge her credibility when he was on trial. The St. Clair County prosecutor declined to pursue a second trial. Last month, Ylen was sentenced to a minimum of five years in prison after being convicted of filing a false report of rape and tampering with evidence in the case.
Mike Connell, a Times Herald columnist who wrote the rape series and stories about Ylen's health, said his wife and others saw her without hair and hooked up to morphine drips over the years.
"She conned a lot of people, including me," Connell said. "The worst thing that she did was to her own family. How would you be if you thought your mother was dying of cancer and it's all fiction? How cruel is that?"
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