A 20-year-old Iowa woman faces no jail time after defrauding more than $39,000 from donors and charities by fabricating her "cancer journey" on social media — a scheme that she said was contrived so her fractured family would give her attention.
Madison Russo pleaded guilty to first-degree theft in June. Although she faced up to 10 years in prison, Scott County Attorney Kelly Cunningham did not argue for time behind bars, citing her lack of criminal history, employment and good grades.
"It's a slap in the face," Rhonda Miles, president of the Nikki Mitchell Foundation, which was defrauded in Russo's scheme, told Fox News Digital. "I think this prosecuting attorney... this needs to hang over her for a long time. She needs to really and truly think about the deal she was making with the devil. I'm disappointed in her, I'm really disappointed in her... It may define her — you're good on drugs and guns, but you sucked with this, baby."
Fox News Digital was unable to reach Cunningham's office at press time.
Russo, who falsely claimed to have pancreatic cancer, will pay full restitution to more than 400 misled donors in addition to a $1,370 fine.
So long as she successfully completes three years of probation, KWQC reported, Russo will evade jail time entirely. Russo's defense team argued for deferred judgment, which would leave their client with a clean record if she completed probation.
But at the Bettendorf woman's sentencing on Friday, Judge John Telleen declined the request, saying that those who deal with her in the future should be aware of her past "criminal scheme" and that "serious crimes must have serious consequences," per The Associated Press.
Miles described getting wind of the sentence before it was handed down in court on Friday.
"When I got there, the prosecuting attorney Kelly Cunningham had me [and other defrauded donors] in the conference room, and she was telling me she had never seen anyone with more remorse, [Russo] had good grades... I was standing there glaring at her, she knew I wasn't happy. When she left the room, I said to the guy next to me, 'Did I just get the impression that this isn't going to go well for anyone but Madison?'"
Miles told Fox News Digital that repaying the money wasn't enough. Although her organization only lost $500, the help and time Miles' organization gave Russo could have been given to another patient "that maybe now is not here or struggling."
"I called a very world-renowned pancreas surgeon," she said, "and told him about Madison Russo and told him, '[Madison] needs a second opinion on whether she can get surgery' — because that's the only way you can get through [pancreatic cancer], through surgery."
Through the Nikki Mitchell Foundation support network, Miles said, a pancreatic cancer patient "talked to [Russo's] mother for hours at a time, just trying to get her mother through this" — but ultimately, Russo's diagnoses were a hoax.
Russo, then 19, told her social media followers and claimed in a bogus GoFundMe initiative that she suffered from "acute lymphoblastic leukemia, stage 2 pancreatic cancer and a tumor the size of a football that wrapped around her spine," according to a press release from the Eldridge Police Department.
Per court documents, Russo's ruse unraveled when medical professionals began noticing and reporting the "terrible, life-threatening inaccuracies of her medical equipment placement on her body" in her "chemo" TikTok videos, noting the irregularities in the color and placement of cords and tubes on her body.
After Eldridge police sat down with a series of medical professionals in January of this year, they were able to secure a warrant to obtain Russo's medical records — centers where Russo claimed she was a patient confirmed that the St. Ambrose University student had never been treated for cancer.
"[Despite] a 'football-sized tumor' on her lower back that 'wraps around her spine'… Russo is still able to prevail with a 4.0 GPA, maintain a part-time job at John Deere, continue to go golfing and according to her mother's social media page is getting a full-ride scholarship at St. Ambrose University," reads a criminal complaint against Russo.
In total, authorities reported that Russo received $37,303 from 439 donors on GoFundMe and some additional money from "other businesses, nonprofit organizations, school districts and private citizens."
But in court on Friday, Russo claimed that "money and greed" weren't among her motivations for faking her diagnoses.
"A lot of people have made speculation as to why I did this and how somebody who looked like they had everything together could have such a mess… I didn't do this for attention," she claimed. "I did this in an attempt to try to get my family back together."
But her "immature decision" would "snowball quickly and hard," she told the court.
"The way I went about this was not right," Russo said, per KWQC. "And I wish I would have [sought] out help regarding my family before making this immature decision. I was 18 years old and I was a freshman in college when it took place. I'm young and I don't know it all and I wasn't being rational."
Russo told the jury that "if there was anything I could do to take it back I would," and bemoaned that "the reality is I can't."
Miles told Fox News Digital that Russo's explanation was "a joke."
"There was something [Russo] said about wanting to move forward, not backward, that this [scam] was a fleeting moment," Miles recalled. "I thought, ‘No, honey, a fleeting moment is having beers on the back of a pickup with your buddy, deciding to drive and getting a DUI. What you did was manufactured — you could’ve stopped at any time,' as the judge said. This went on for a year — it was not a fleeting moment."
Moreover, Miles said, Russo's punishment won't deter other potential fraudsters.
"I'm saying ‘Are you frickin’ nuts?' This is not a deterrent, it's a green light," Miles said Tuesday. "If I had that mentality, if I heard someone just got a slap on the wrist, that would give me a green light to do whatever I wanted."
But, as disappointed as she is with Russo's sentence, Miles took solace in one fact: "She's a felon from now on. Everything she does, she is a convicted felon. She has to put that on every application, she has no voting rights — anything that goes along with being a felon she has to deal with now. That's the best outcome, after the prosecuting attorney's actions, is the best we could have hoped for."
Russo and her attorney could not be reached for comment.
Christina Coulter is a U.S. and World reporter for Fox News Digital. Email story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.