SICK

Mom Used Kids to Fake Cancer for Cash

When Mandy Hargraves announced her life-threatening diagnosis, she got her estranged husband back and tons of donations. Then the authorities got a peek at her medical history.

06.20.16 5:13 AM ET

Mandy Hargraves was addicted to dying.

She had been on the outs with her husband and going broke before cancer. Then her estranged husband returned and money started rolling in as donations to fund her fight against stage 4 stomach cancer.

Except Hargraves was allegedly playing sick and playing people for fools.

Authorities in Valdosta, Georgia, claim she duped strangers and loved ones into pouring out their souls on Facebook and emptying their pocketbooks into the 34-year-old’s GoFundMe page. Hargraves allegedly kept the lie alive by using her children as props.

And she seemed to sweeten the pot by always turning to her heart and soul of her kids as the reason she wouldn’t let cancer claim victory. “With all of the bad news that I was hit with yesterday I will continue my life just like it never happened. I refuse to through in the town . I don’t have that in me i have two beautiful children that need me and I am determined to fight for my life for their sake.”

The “sick” mother wasted no time to prop her kids modeling “Mandy Strong” T-shirts or cozying up in a waiting room of a hospital stay.

Days after being diagnosed Hargraves wrote that her daughter, wearing an oversized white MD coat, announced she would eradicate the cancer herself.

“‘Mama I want to be your hero I want to fix your heart and take all of your sickness and pain away’ holding back the tears,” she wrote. “Dr. Hargraves has no idea that she is one of the reasons I keep fighting this fight.”

A “Mandy Strong” movement was born. T-shirts were sported by her kids, fellow cheerleaders, and moms on ladies’ nights out. One even took her T-shirt to Paris.

“We are on God’s timing and I’m thankful to still have a pulse,” she wrote in response to the symphony of well-wishers.

Not least of all was her 65-year-old dad Leonard Thornton.

A few days after learning his daughter as doomed he posted a spiritual pledge: “TO OUR Mandy Thornton Hargraves !!!, OUR GIFT FROM GOD !!!, OUR LOVE !!!, OUR HEARTBEAT !!!, WE ARE STANDING ON THE WORD OF GOD !!”

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Fast forward two years and he’s still defending his daughter, albeit under far different circumstances.

“That’s not Mandy,” her dad told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview. “What people are seeing that’s just not her.”

He’s at a loss for the right words to explain how his not-so-dying daughter fell so hard, having turned herself in on June 6 to answer to theft by deception charges.

Hargraves faces up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Valdosta deputies cased the alleged cancer fraudster for a year and even pored over Hargraves’s medical records after the woman’s inner circle (including her husband and her friend who set up the GoFundMe account) blew the whistle on her to authorities, according to the sheriff’s report.

“Someone’s medical records are a private issue for that person so we were very cautious to make sure we proceeded each step presenting the necessary probably cause,” Lowndes County Sheriff’s Capt. Stryde Jones told The Daily Beast of how they convinced a judge to bypass HIPAA and greenlight their warrants.

In May of last year Capt. Jones said investigators questioned Hargraves about holes in cancer tale. And while she didn’t have much to say, Hargraves was evidently spooked and quit soliciting for funds.

“After that point there was no fundraising efforts, no donations and any claims she had made stopped,” he said.

The Baptist daughter that Thornton raised has been a no-show at Sunday services for months.

“Oh Lord it’s been three months since she’s been to church and that’s a big concern of mine,” he said.

Adding injury to the insult is a shooting “accident” that almost took his daughter’s life.

On May 9, Mandy Hargraves was apparently carrying a couple of pistols from her home to a shooting friend’s house for safekeeping when her .38 fired, spilling five units of her blood on the asphalt.

“The bullet went into the right side and struck the ribcage pointing downward against the pelvis,” her dad added. “She lost her kidney, she lost 4-and-a-half-feet of intestines, she lost part of her colon, part of her liver and the use of her left leg.”

When she posed for mugshot she’d slimmed down to 80 pounds.

Was it suicide?

“I’ve questioned it,” he said but doubts she tried to take her own life.

The doting mother seemed to want to hold onto her life through the ruse. “She and her husband were planning on getting a divorce and this came about and then her and her husband reunited and got closer together only to get divided again after the fact.”

“There again you wonder—was she actually sick?”

The dad has racked his brain to recall times when he was present with her at various doctors’ appointments and can only come up with scant evidence.

“I think the doctors she was dealing with all thought her situation was worse than it was,” he said. “I do believe she was told something that made her afraid for her body but at the same time maybe attention; maybe she wanted that. Maybe she felt she needed that but it got out of hand.”

The possible cry for help wasn’t lost on Thornton who remembered confronting his daughter a year into her alleged cancer concoction.

“When she went through this thing here I actually asked her if there was something not true and she told me ‘No daddy.’ Mandy always seemed to be truthful with me.”

After that one exchange her father left it alone. “She didn’t want to have any conversations after that,” he said. “The only thing I can do is pray for her and get ready for her to talk and then do the best I can do for her with the leadership of god.”

Others aren’t feeling as pious.

Leanne Bennett was one of Hargraves closest cohorts. The ex-cop even got to work to create the now defunct GoFundMe page. She told us, “I wish I had nothing to do with it.”

On a post after the sheriff’s investigation was well underway Bennett boldly wrote a sort of apology to the masses who came forward with their hard earned dollars. She mentioned how there Hargraves sickness “did not add up” but the circle of her friends supported her “because we could not believe she would lie about something so detrimental to her children and everyone that loves her.”

But the wait didn’t last long as the alleged deceit became more and more brazen. “I have seen the explanation of benefits from her insurance that show no scans at all.”

Smoking gun evidence for Bennett compelled her to turn to law enforcement and out “the patient” as having never had the two PET scans she claimed she did. Same went for the MRI, CT scans, biopsy and those oncology appointments—they were pure fiction.

Hargraves was “one of my closest friends” and she never flinched to go to bat for her.

“She told me personally on her front porch on Halloween that she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Stomach cancer that was in her lymph nodes and blood stream. I was devastated,” Bennett wrote on Facebook.

Bennett asked for forgiveness and wrote that while the money is a major factor in this sick scheme “the most important part is her children who will be affected by this for the rest of their lives and all the kids who thought she was dying because her child told all of her friends including my children who still don’t understand how or why anyone would lie about dying.”

There appears to be no shame in Hargraves hawking her cancer. Her kids rock her black T-shirt which in hot pink capped letter reading “MANDY STRONG” on the front and on the reverse read: “TOUGHER THAN CANCER TOGETHER.”

A GoFundMe rep told The Daily Beast that the platform “offered refunds to all donors” and acted once it became known that the mom’s cancer was a crock. In Hargraves case, the effort “was never flagged as fraudulent” until last week when she turned herself and and her mugshot was taken.

One woman who donated $100 (and hasn’t received any money back) still feels slighted but hopes Mandy Hargraves is healed for her deception. “My prayers go out to her,” the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told us. “She was a friend of the family and we’ve known them for years and she had two children and that’s what Christian families do; they try to help each other out.”

The aunt of Hargraves’s ex-husband, Penny Hargraves, is still learning how to be a widow after her husband Jerry died of cancer two years ago at age 58.

“Because my husband battled cancer for two years and she fakes an illness like that,” she said in a phone interview. “Mandy did not come to my husband’s funeral, she did not come to visit my husband. She didn’t do anything—she was just faking this illness.”

Lowndes County Sheriff’s Capt. Jones is convinced that too many were honest people taken because of one woman’s need for a money and attention.

Mandy Hargraves

Handout

“There’s no winners in this case,” he said. “From a monetary standpoint it’s not that bad… The people that this hurts are the ones suffering from illness.

“For them there’s no cure. They need this assistance and this kind of thing makes everybody reluctant to donate.”

Her dad contends there was never any malice.

“She never tried to be intentionally foul or cause havoc… But it’s just one of those things that happened before I realized it.”

Whatever morsel his daughter may have bit off her dad knows now he didn’t see clearly in time the signs to intervene. “I played this thing and replayed it in my mind and this could have been nipped in the bud a long time ago.

“I had a lot of friends asking me questions too that I didn’t have answers for.

“I didn’t talk to them or didn’t answer my phone every time because I didn’t have answers.”

And when it wasn’t friends asking questions it was the cops. He’s waiting for his daughter to enlighten him on what exactly happened to her on her time.

“One of the detectives told me ‘Listen, if she would just show me it was just cancer risks to start with I can take that back to the DA and judge,’” Thornton recalled the investigator telling him. “‘But we have a lot of people that want to bring this out.’”

While he remains steadfast to get answers he isn’t ruling out that divine intervention could have made whatever cancer disappear.

“I’m first to tell you I believe in healing power,” he said. “I believe in miracles.

“I believe in the healing power of Jesus. There were many prayers for her. For a while I just praised God that she was going to be okay.”

He also catches himself and wonders if indeed it was a higher power at work or a desperate attempt to hoodwink so many for who knows what. “At some point you have to recognize and say hey ‘We thought there was cancer here. We thought there was a problem here and now we don’t see it. We just see scars.’”

One thing is certain if his daughter’s demise is proven to be a put on she is likely to face hard time for scarring so many. But perhaps better prison than cancer.