A fake cancer patient was exposed on TikTok. Now, genuine survivors are asking donors not to give up on them
Iowa teenager Maddie Russo first revealed her “pancreatic cancer diagnosis” in an interview withThe North Scott Press’s former editor Scott Campbell last October.
Ms Russo, 19, told the veteran newsman that after an initial diagnosis eight months earlier, she’d been told by doctors that same day that the cancer had developed into a “football-sized” tumour.
She told him that the cancer had wrapped around her lower back and spine and spread to her blood, claiming she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“I was terrified, and I definitely still am,” Ms Russo told the Free Press. “I was in shock. I didn’t think it could be true. I’m so young, and I wondered how this could happen.”
Recalling the conversation in an interview with The Independent on Thursday, Mr Campbell said the story, while tragic, was something he had covered countless times in his 40-year career.
“I knew this girl from when she was in (North Scott) high school so I didn’t even think twice about it,” he said.
Ms Russo had already begun documenting her cancer journey on GoFundme, Linkedin and in TikTok videos, where she shared tips on how she managed to keep her flowing mane of brunette hair healthy while undergoing chemotherapy.
Permatanned and with bleached white teeth, Ms Russo claimed she had received dozens of rounds of chemotherapy and radiation over an eight month period.
“If you look at me you would never know I’m sick,” she said in one TikTok.
She spoke about how she was freezing her eggs to keep her fertility options open.
Ms Russo also shared footage of herself apparently undergoing chemotherapy treatment with an IV pole with cords and tubes attached to her nasal passage.
Late last year, medical professionals began to point out “life-threatening” discrepancies in how she was using the equipment in TikTok videos. One noticed that a gastronomy tube was too far up her nose, and even grabbed her son’s old tube to demonstrate.
Mr Campbell told The Independent that several whistleblowers, including local cancer specialists, contacted him on 10 January to share their doubts about Ms Russo’s story.
“They wanted to know if I had any physical proof of the diagnosis,” he said.
The anonymous medics said it appeared that Ms Russo’s cancer claims had been “scraped off Google”. They shared screenshots of Instagram and Facebook messages, including some from Ms Russo’s mother, begging her to get a second opinion.
“The big tip off was that Maddie looked as healthy as can be. They said than anyone who went through 40 rounds of chemo and 90 rounds of radiation wouldn’t look the way she does, would not be able to keep up the lifestyle that she does,” Mr Campbell said, adding that the eagle-eyed medical experts had the evidence “all laid out”.
“By the time the police got it, it was pretty much an open and shut case,” he said.
He advised them to take the information to the Eldridge Police Department.
Even as the alleged ruse was unravelling, Ms Russo continued to post emotional updates calling for donations to her GoFundme.
“Maddie’s cancer has been progressively getting worse and has spread all over her body including throughout her blood and also on her spine,” a 9 January update read on the since deleted page. “She has tried everything and given it her all. Chemo, radiation, and other methods have no longer helped.”
According to an affidavit from the Eldridge Police Department, police received a complaint on 11 January that Ms Russo had fraudulently received more than $37,000 from 439 donors to her GoFundme account.
The St Ambrose University accountancy student and John Deere intern was arrested on 23 January and charged with one count of first-degree theft, a felony punishable by 10 years in prison.
When police raided her apartment in nearby Bettendorf, they seized a brown wig, an IV pole with a feeding pump filled with cotton balls, medical supplies in a relative’s name, cash, bank statements, and a Kia Sportage registered to Russo, court records obtained by the North Scott Press show.
Police said in an affidavit that Ms Russo’s footage of her treatment, purportedly taken inside a medical office, was actually filmed in her apartment.
Eldridge police checked medical records at three area hospitals where Ms Russo had claimed to have been treated, but none could find any record of her cancer diagnosis, the affidavit stated.
GoFundme has since taken down her page and refunded donations.
Tom Bouland, the man who started her GoFundMe campaign, posted a $10,000 cash bail, according to court records obtained by the Quad City Times.
‘Their stories kind of mirrored each other’
When Iowa teenager Charly Espelding died after a long battle with cancer last October, Ms Russo was among the first to publicly mourn her death.
“This absolutely breaks my heart,” she wrote in a since-deleted Facebook post, which was resurfaced by the Mama Mystery Podcast Tik Tok account. “Charly and I would text each other daily talking about all the ups and downs of both our battles with cancer, and she was just seriously a sweet, genuine soul.”
Ms Russo and Espelding were the same age and lived minutes apart in a metropolitan area known as the Quad Cities on the state border with Illinois. They had been in constant text contact right up until her death, Ms Russo wrote.
Mr Campbell told The Independent that the speculation around town is that Ms Russo may have imitated elements of her friend’s cancer story.
“Their stories kind of mirrored each other,” Mr Campbell said.
The Independent has attempted to reach Espelding’s parents.
‘The issue of fraudulence’
Among those who donated to Ms Russo’s GoFundme was Peggy Ohl, who set up the Ohl Strong Foundation to raise money for pancreatic cancer sufferers after her husband Dr Brent Ohl died from the disease in 2018.
In the same interview with the North Scott Press in 2018, Ms Russo explained that Peggy Ohl had gone to school with her mother, also named Peggy, and shared a birthday with her father.
“When Peggy found out about me, she immediately reached out, and I received a whole package of support materials, including $500 in gift cards,” Ms Russo told the news site.
A member of the Ohl family declined to speak when contacted by The Independent.
In a statement posted to its Facebook page, the foundation said it was “saddened to hear that one of our recipients in 2022 has been charged with fraudulently accepting assistance from our fund”.
Ms Russo also claimed to have been a guest speaker for the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation.
The organisation’s founder Rhonda WIlliams later released a statement saying Ms Russo had not had any contact with the foundation and had never spoken at any of their events.
“To those who are battling pancreatic cancer, we stand with you and we know the fight you are in is difficult and the burden can be heavy.”
In one of her many TikTok posts, Ms Russo shared an image with text of herself along with the words “drained from chemo.”
The photo was taken from an Instagram public page belonging to a cancer survivor named Jessica Sanders, according to an affidavit from Eldridge police.
Ms Sanders, who is in recovery after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 20, told KWQC she had never met Ms Russo, and felt “violated”.
“Survivorship is very difficult emotionally and this really hit me hard,” she told KWQC in a statement. “It also appears that she gave out false information and hope about how she saved her hair during treatment. What she is accused of doing is so hurtful and offensive to anyone that went through cancer.”
Other members of the cancer survivor community who befriended Ms Russo have been rocked by revelations of her alleged scam.
Among them were Joe Tower and his wife Anna Tower-Kovesdi, who received a shock diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in December 2021.
Mr Tower wrote in an update on the couple’s GoFundme page how he and his wife had connected with the Iowa teenager through Linkedin; they shared a similar Midwest background, and shared Ms Russo’s fundraising page in part because she claimed to have the same rare blood disease that Anna was suffering from.
Mr Tower told how the integrity of cancer survivors and their caregivers had been called into question after Ms Russo’s arrest, and how many had been forced to “face our networks to address the issue of fraudulence”.
Crowdfunding platforms had been “revolutionary” in connecting donors to the desperate, he said, but added that anyone looking to help should do their homework and try to personally connect with the fundraiser.
“Soliciting a donation isn’t nearly as important to us as maintaining the relationship between the fundraising campaign and our donor community,” Mr Tower added in the update.
‘Remorse is not in their lexicon’
Steve Baker, who spent 30 years investigating fraud as a senior manager at the Federal Trade Commission, told The Independent in an interview on Thursday that the vast majority of online scams are never detected.
Most times, victims were too embarrassed to report losing money, which made it harder for law enforcement to track patterns of behaviour. Police are often already stretched investigating violent crimes and the white-collar crooks take advantage of that, he said.
Mr Baker said that perpetrators of online fraud often came from respectable middle-class backgrounds, and learned the playbook from someone close to them.
“The scammers prey on basic human emotions of greed, a desire for money, or on the kindness of strangers. When those emotions come into play, better judgment gets left behind,” he said.
According to some estimates, around seven per cent of scammers are on the psychopath spectrum, and incapable of feeling guilt.
“Remorse is not in their lexicon, they don’t feel bad about the harm they’ve inflicted on other people. They only feel guilty when they get caught. And all too often they don’t,” he explained, adding that media scrutiny was often the best way to avoid more unwitting donors from being ripped off.
A community waits for an apology
Mr Campbell retired from the North Scott Press in November last year, but he felt he owed it to his readers to wrote one last editorial trying to explain the inexplicable and address the fallout from one of his last ever interviews.
“I don’t like to get duped,” he wrote. “I hate it even more that I was somehow complicit in helping bilk money from innocent and caring people.”
Mr Campbell told The Independent that residents of Eldridge had been left hurt and bewildered, and wondering what Ms Russo’s end game had been.
“I never in my wildest dreams think it was a hoax. How could a girl that we’d all known in this community come up with this kind of a ruse?” he said.
Looking back, he says he doesn’t believe he would have done anything differently.
“I feel bad about it, but I don’t want to lose my faith in mankind,” he said. “I don’t want this story to keep me or anyone else from doing these stories. It’s not quite the way I expected my career to end.”
The Independent has attempted to reach Ms Russo and her family multiple times through phone calls, texts and social media.