Cancer scam victims feel ‘betrayed’ with Madison Russo suspended sentence

TV6 Investigates breaks down the sentencing hearing
Published: Oct. 19, 2023 at 10:26 PM CDT
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SCOTT Co., Iowa (KWQC) - Madison Russo was an inspiration to cancer sufferers. Her story gave hope to the dying. She rallied support from the Quad-Cities.

But it was all a sham.

Russo, who was 18 years old and a freshman at St. Ambrose University, never had pancreatic cancer. Or leukemia. Or a tumor the size of a football wrapped around her spine.

Before police stepped in, she had collected more than $39,000 from 439 donors and cancer charities.

At sentencing Friday at the Scott County Courthouse, a judge ordered Russo to a 10-year suspended prison sentence with three years of probation. If Russo completes probation successfully, she will not have to go to prison.

Russo, now 20 years old, asked for a deferred judgment – meaning she wouldn’t have a conviction on her record if she successfully completed probation – but the judge disagreed, saying the public deserved to know Russo is a felon.

Russo spoke for the first time about why she did it.

“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 money or greed. I didn’t do this for attention. I did this in an attempt to try to get my family back together.”

Russo said she hoped her fake cancer battle would force her fractured family to focus on her.

As part of the ruse, she got a wig, doctored photos and bought CVS and a feeding pump.

She documented her battle on TikTok.

But doctors following her story on social media noticed she was incorrectly using medical equipment.

They called the police.

Judge John Telleen summarized the plot: “Through this scheme, you deceived your friends, your family, your community, other cancer victims, charities and strangers who were motivated by your supposedly tragic story to donate to help support you.”

Russo pleaded guilty in June to one count of first-degree theft, a class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Russo was ordered to pay the restitution in full at over $39,000, and a fine of $1,370. She has turned over the stolen money to a bank that will disburse it back to donors.

At sentencing, Scott County attorney Kelly Cunningham recommended against prison because Russo had no criminal history, had good grades, was employed and unlikely to reoffend.

But victims who testified said they felt betrayed by prosecutors for the plea deal. They spoke on behalf of real cancer sufferers.

Rhonda Miles runs a cancer foundation in Nashville that donated to Russo.

“It was devastating to sit there and watch the Scott County prosecuting attorney act like a defending attorney, so that was tough,” she said. “And I think she’ll have a lot of questions to answer from the locals on that at some point. Why were you defending this girl when you were supposed to be prosecuting?”

She said that after the scam went downhill, “it snowballed quickly and hard. The way I went about this was not right. And I wish I would have seeked 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.”

She apologized to the court and victims.

“I fully acknowledge what I did was wrong. And I’m incredibly sorry. If there was anything I could do to take it back I would. The reality is I can’t.”

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