ARDSLEY, N.Y. — It was a small town, so small that it wasn’t officially a town, but a village tucked inside the municipality of Greenburgh. Occupying 1 square mile, and counting only 4,600 souls, it was a commuter’s dream: a tight-knit hamlet just north of Manhattan, seemingly immune from 21st-century isolation. As the deputy fire chief put it, “You know, it’s like living in a fishbowl. Everybody knows what’s going on.”
So it didn’t take long for news of the diagnosis to spread. A mother of two boys at Ardsley High School told the football coach she had cancer, and the football coach told the president of the booster club, and the president of the booster club told the deputy fire chief. They hardly knew the woman in question — Shivonie Deokaran and her boys were relatively new to town — but these men knew they needed to help. The story was all too familiar: She had only 18 months to live. Her cancer treatments were exorbitant — and you could imagine all those debts falling on Deokaran’s teenaged sons once she was gone.
First, they held a raffle. But then Rob Wootten, the president of the Ardsley Panthers booster club, and Rick Thompson, the deputy fire chief, came up with a more ambitious plan. The amount raised on the sidelines of football games — that would be seed money for a fundraiser big enough to tackle serious medical bills. It would be a spaghetti dinner to end all spaghetti dinners.
Wootten and Thompson were buddies at the local Department of Public Works. Wootten was younger, and more of a ham, a teller of dad jokes both dirty and clean. He knew everyone, and was constantly guffawing, slapping backs, shaking hands. Everyone knew Thomspon, too: He had the kind of smile that puts you at ease. He’d owned eateries from the tri-state area down to Florida, and even now, after leaving the business, he was still known among the firehouse volunteers for his chicken oreganata.
Together, they made a good fundraising team: One could wrangle a crowd and the other could keep it fed. The Greenburgh town supervisor had already helped promote a GoFundMe page for Deokaran, which had quickly generated over $10,000, but this spaghetti dinner would outclass that. On Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, in the company hall above the fire engines, the department’s volunteers served up some 75 pounds of pasta, with 50 gallons of sauce that Thompson had concocted from six cases of canned tomatoes, 18 large Spanish onions, and over three pounds of garlic. The mince for the meatballs weighed as much as a small child.
Three high school football teams acted as waiters, directed by a small army of moms. Wootten’s daughter painted faces. The Ardsley High School chorus sang. Deokaran was there with her sons, hugging donors, sitting with her boyfriend, laughing and applauding as raffle tickets were drawn. Around $16,000 was raised — so much money, Wootten said, that “we decided to break it into a few checks so she wasn’t impacted tax-wise.”
Even after Deokaran received the funds at a ceremony in the school auditorium, checks kept arriving at Wootten’s house. He had a pile of them waiting in his cabinet when, in early December, he got an email from someone whose name he didn’t recognize. It began: “Hi Rob, It is with great regret that I must tell you that you … have been scammed.”
Wootten didn’t lose his cool — “I’m not a fricking snowflake, I didn’t melt,” he said — but he was mad. His spaghetti dinner had been publicized well enough to attract over 500 people. Why had this stranger waited until now to raise the alarm?
The email also put him in a bind. If Deokaran was lying when she said she had cancer, Wootten’s whole community had essentially been robbed. If she did have cancer, though, and Wootten mistakenly accused her of fraud, he could ruin what little time she had left to live.
Wootten’s spaghetti dinner sounds like a scene out of Norman Rockwell, a quaint relic of an America long gone. Community fundraisers now unfold on the servers of GoFundMe and YouCaring instead of in the local firehouse, with selfies instead of speeches, clicks instead of cash in a jar. But you’re still often relying on your neighbor or your high school pal; you just don’t need to look them in the eye.
The uneasiness Wootten felt that December night has, if anything, become more common. A webpage can be set up and beamed out to an entire social circle in minutes — Norman Rockwell, in Imax 3-D. And that makes it easier for the beneficiary to be an acquaintance and a fraudster at the same time.
Behind that kind of fraud lies a staggering amount of medical need. GoFundMe was founded in 2010, and its number of medical campaigns jumped from around 8,000 in 2011 to some 600,000 in 2014. By 2015, the site had hosted over 1.8 million such pages. Some of those asking for help have no insurance. Others have insurance but can’t afford the medical costs that remain uncovered.
A cancer diagnosis, for instance, often engenders such eye-popping bills that the threat of bankruptcy looms almost as large as the risk of death. So the reaction in Ardsley was only natural: To heal a patient’s body and soul, you need to minister to his or her bank account. It’s automatic, as reflexive as saying please.
It’s also a scam artist’s dream. As Wootten put it, “Who’s going to question the fact that someone has terminal cancer?” Same goes for someone who claims that they’re a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing, or the Pulse nightclub shooting — which some fraudsters did.
No one knows how much fundraising fraud is out there, but there’s enough — and few enough safeguards against it — that a woman named Adrienne Gonzalez founded a DIY watchdog in 2016. Her website is called GoFraudMe; Gonzalez has proclaimed herself its Benevolent Overlord. During the day, she takes calls to a tip line from her desk at a beverage company near Richmond, Va. She writes up her findings while watching Netflix at night.
Gonzalez tracks all kinds of crowdfunding fraud, from fake funeral fundraisers to campaigns for nonexistent pets. She said accusations of cancer fraud are becoming more common, and are among the hardest to investigate.
Partially that’s because of patient privacy laws. But there is also the dilemma that Wootten was facing: When dealing with allegations of health-related fraud, it’s hard to know who is telling the truth.
“I get a lot of petty tips,” said Gonzalez. Some come from vengeful ex-spouses, others from nosy neighbors or Facebook (FB) friends who have decided the patient doesn’t need help with medical bills. “They think it’s fraud if somebody they don’t like is running a campaign,” she said. Some people even take their grudges all the way to the FBI.
Then again, some tips merit a concerted investigation. Earlier this year, a Nevada woman was arrested on allegations that she’d pretended her son had leukemia, and held a memorial service for him in a casino, though he was very much alive. “She brought a substantial amount of food home, and the boy was curious about where all the food came from,” Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong told STAT. An acquaintance of the family called the police, and Furlong is glad he did. “We were afraid that somebody was going to kill the child,” he explained.
Many fundraising scams, like legitimate campaigns, yield fairly small amounts: The Nevada case involved an estimated $2,000. Jeremy Snyder, an ethicist at Simon Fraser University, near Vancouver, has compared personal fundraising campaigns to popularity contests. The better you are able to marshal social media, and the more plugged in you are to a wealthy community, the more you make. Deokaran was in affluent Westchester County; all told, she raked in over $50,000.
Wootten didn’t know how seriously to take the complaint that arrived in his inbox. He couldn’t brush the email off, but he didn’t quite trust it either. He needed to figure out who was lying — and why.
In early December, Wootten got an email from someone whose name he didn’t recognize. It began: “Hi Rob, It is with great regret that I must tell you that you … have been scammed.”
The email had arrived a bit before sundown on Dec. 8, 2015. It claimed that Deokaran did not currently have cancer — though she might have in the past — and that she was now shaving her head to wheedle money out of her community. Wootten’s response was terse: “Who are you?”
The answer came 32 minutes later. Deokaran’s boyfriend, Nikhlesh Parekh, had two children from a previous relationship. The tipster said that he was the person caring for them.
“Thank you,” Wootten wrote. “I don’t know your intentions yet, but if you have any please keep me posted. I’ll get to the bottom of this.”
The task wasn’t completely new to him. In the early 2000s, a well-placed friend helped Wootten land a gig as an investigator with the state Racing and Wagering Board, keeping tabs on charitable gaming events. He’d inspect bingo nights at churches and VFWs, Elks clubs, and Legion halls.
“There’s also poker nights, there’s night at-the-casinos, there’s bell jar tickets, the scratch-off tickets and the rip-off tickets,” he said. “The proceeds from that stuff is regulated by the state, so that’s what I did: I followed where that money went.”
Often, it was stolen. Sometimes it was simple stuff: People writing out checks to themselves. Other times they were complex schemes involving hundreds of thousands of dollars. He’d go undercover in Oswego and Utica and Syracuse. He and his collaborators would grow out their beards to blend in with scruffier crowds, looking for illegal gambling and drugs and guns.
Once, he helped bust a plot in which one family enriched themselves by predetermining the lucky tickets. Another time, he investigated an employee of a Catholic church who put her kids through college with funds embezzled from charitable gaming. She eventually told the priest about it in the privacy of the confessional. “He didn’t want it to go to the press,” Wootten recalled, “and I said, ‘Father, with all due respect, if it does go to the press, then people will feel that much worse for you, and they’ll put a few more dollars in the basket.’”
Cool as it was, the work kept him away from his family. Wootten felt guilty, eating in restaurants upstate while his wife was cooking for five kids. He quit around 2006 to repair roads and remove snow for Ardsley’s DPW, and, as if to make up for lost time, became Ardsley’s volunteer-in-chief: the cable committee, the Little League, the booster club, his Catholic church.
Still, he knew that good Samaritans weren’t always what they seemed, and he wondered about this man named Eric Barret who was suddenly telling him Deokaran’s cancer was a lie.
His emails contained all kinds of accusations. He said that Parekh had missed child support payments, and listed the ways in which Deokaran did not seem believable. He said he’d seen a YouTube video in which she’d claimed that her cancer was better — “funny how she suddenly developed it again when money was involved,” he wrote. He wondered how she was able to run a marathon if she were so sick. He made comments about Deokaran and Parekh’s vacations, implying they had plenty of money. He encouraged Wootten to call the couple’s previous landlords for information on Deokaran’s alleged wrongdoings, and even provided their telephone numbers.
Wootten’s replies bounced from gratitude to suspicion. “God forbid people think I’m in on something this vicious,” he wrote. When asking why no one else had said anything, Wootten added, “Not blaming you of course.” But later that evening, Wootten pointed out that Deokaran had not, in fact, done a marathon, but a walk, and questioned the relevance of what Barret was saying. “Where is the proof you are telling us the truth?” he asked.
If Barret wasn’t going to provide any, Wootten was just going to have to find some himself.
Slowly, the idea took shape: Wootten would confront Deokaran. Her reaction would be the most convincing evidence. He asked the advice of one of his buddies who was the Greenburgh police chief as their kids dribbled up and down the basketball court, and passed by to chat with another friend who was an Ardsley detective. They both seemed to like the idea. His wife, though, didn’t agree. Nor did some of his other friends. “‘No, don’t go do that. It’s dangerous. They could hurt you,” he remembered them saying.
Wootten told them they were right. Then, he made plans to go anyway, telling his wife he had a doctor’s appointment. “I went there behind my wife’s back, like I was cheating on her or something,” he said.
He called the night before and asked Deokaran if he could stop by and chat the next day. He assured her nothing was wrong. The visit wouldn’t have been all that strange even if he hadn’t received Barret’s emails. After all, he had a pile of checks for her in his TV cabinet.
At mid-morning, he drove over, emails in hand. He kept reminding himself that what he was about to do was heartless. It was entirely possible that she was really dying of cancer. He doesn’t like to admit that he was anxious, but he was. “The women got me nervous thinking they’re going to harm me or something,” he said.
Wootten remembers being greeted at the door by Parekh, who was holding back their dog, and he went in to kiss Deokaran hello while Parekh tried to put the mutt behind a gate on the steps. He began with niceties, settling on the couch across from where she sat with a quilted blanket on her lap.
But the dog just kept barking and barking, the sound filling the house, making it hard to talk. Finally Wootten asked Parekh to let it out. “Maybe I’ll just become friends with him and I’ll shut him up,” he remembers saying.
Wootten hoped the dog would put them all at ease, and now that it was sitting next to him on the couch, he started in. “Listen, the reason I’m here is nothing, I just wanted to let you know that I got an email from this guy …”
The reaction to Eric Barret’s name was immediate. The scene that Wootten describes is one of despair: Deokaran, with her head in her hands, moaning “Oh, my God, oh my, God, he’s trying to ruin us,” the dog nosing off the couch and padding over to her, and Parekh coming to console her as well. Wootten couldn’t see any tears at first, and he thought that her crying might have been forced — but he also reminded himself that he knew little about cancer and its treatments. “I’m thinking maybe since she’s going through chemo, she can’t so easily cry,” he recalled.
The tears, he said, came not long after. They said that Barret was Parekh’s ex’s boyfriend, and was just intent on making trouble. She described the costs of chemo, and all they were doing to stay afloat: her work in photography, his new businesses. She said her physician had died in the earthquake in Nepal. She said she could provide proof of her illness.
Wootten was exploding with questions. The earthquake in Nepal? What did that have to do with anything? How did she know what Barret’s emails had said before he was even able to tell her? But he didn’t ask any aloud. He wanted them to keep talking.
“Before I left, I made it as if I was buddy-buddy with them, and I apologized for going there and getting her upset, and she understood,” he said. Then he drove back across the Saw Mill River to the Ardsley police department, and filed a formal complaint.
Not long after, the couple abruptly moved to Orlando.
It was only later, after the FBI got involved, that more of the story began to emerge. The FBI had access to much that Wootten didn’t. Deokaran’s legal name, it turned out, was Vedoutie Hoobraj. Agents pulled her medical and banking records, interviewed her friends and acquaintances, consulted a forensic accountant. They found that the money she was collecting went into an account she used to pay rent and business expenses, but nothing that seemed cancer-related.
They sought out the doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York who had supposedly died in the Nepal earthquake. The specialist was not only still alive, but also had no memory of ever encountering Deokaran, or of using an email account with which Parekh had said he’d corresponded to ask about how best to care for his dying girlfriend. That account, the agents found, had been created in 2014, two months before Deokaran’s first GoFundMe was set up, and deleted in January 2016, just after Wootten had first been tipped off.
All that was laid out in the criminal complaint of wire fraud that the FBI agents filed in court. The very last piece of evidence was perhaps the most damning, and the most baffling. On Aug. 10, 2017, Deokaran “acknowledged … that she did not have leukemia during the period when the fundraising solicitations were made, and that she had ‘made a mistake’ she wishes she could take back.”
She was arrested in Orlando the next day. Her lawyer is now trying to get the case resolved without a trial, and neither of them responded to repeated requests for comment.
As the facts begin to fall into place, the motives remain obscure, even for someone like Wootten, who chased fraudsters for years.
“I really don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t know why anyone would think they would be able to get away with something like that,” he said. “There are some people who’ve lost their jobs, who are desperate, but Shivonie and Nik, they were working, they had businesses.”
“I don’t know why anyone would think they would be able to get away with something like that.”
Deokaran was well-placed to pull it off. She came to Westchester County three years ago to be with Parekh. In Parekh’s telling, the two met through Match.com, and their first date was on Independence Day, in 2012. First, they ate at a haunted-house-themed restaurant in New York City. Then, he took her to get her first tattoo: the symbol of an Om on her wrist. Two years later, they moved into a house together with her kids in the town where he had been living: Dobbs Ferry, one village over from Ardsley.
She had mentioned to Parekh, during that first leisurely day together, that she’d had cancer in the past, but she was fine now. Then, one day, not long after they moved in together, she came home and told him her cancer was back. He remembers her saying he shouldn’t be frightened if her hair started to fall out.
To Wootten, those circumstances were perfect. She was new enough to town that most people did not know her all that well, but was present enough to be trusted. Her kids provided an opening to the Panthers community, and they were young enough to help garner sympathy.
“To me it was just lucky timing for her,” Wootten said. “We were easy prey, because that’s the type of community we are. People live here and have their kids go to school here, they shop here. Ain’t that America?”
The thought reminded him of the ’80s rock song with that refrain, and he began to sing a raspy, mocking version of it: “Oh, but ain’t that America, for you and me.” He trailed off into laughter.
The most common moral, for this kind of story, is about as ancient as Aesop himself. The idea was touted in news stories and Department of Justice press releases: Fibbing doesn’t just take its toll on the fibber, but on everyone. Fraud erodes our trust, making us all less likely to give.
That wasn’t the picture that emerged on a hot day in late September, as Deokaran’s son’s former football team took to the field. People weren’t thinking about the money they had lost from the spaghetti dinner, or about the refunds promised by GoFundMe for any online donations, or about how the case would play out in court as fall progressed. Instead they were thinking about ice-cold Gatorade from the concession stand. They were thinking of the mother who’d fainted from the heat as she watched the game. They were chanting “Oooh, ah, you wish you were a Panther! Oooh, ah, you wish you were a Panther!”
A 10th-grade girl stood at a table near the stands, selling homemade bracelets to raise money for a local education and care center for those with Down syndrome. The cheerleaders posed with her before the game began, clutching blue and gold pompoms.
“The community around here is very helpful,” said one dad, who was selling Panthers T-shirts. “I think they would do it again.”
Wootten, though he was still angry, said the same thing as he took frozen pretzels from a package, dipped them in water, rubbed them in salt, and threw them on the grill: Ardsley would do it again, if another crisis occurred.
That crisis was already happening, right then, in that last burst of summer. You could see it in the thousands of appeals for help on GoFundMe and YouCaring and other sites. Most of those patients lived in other places, though — communities where neighbors might be strangers, or where there wasn’t much cash lying around for fundraisers. They weren’t there in Ardsley to hold their caps over their hearts for the national anthem, or to see the Panthers score their first touchdown. They weren’t there to feel the breeze that started just before the second quarter. They weren’t there to hear the EMT sidle up to the concession stand after he’d cared for the fainted mom and say, “She’s all right now. You got a burger?”