A former Ardsley woman who used a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for medical care and living expenses after she said she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, has pleaded guilty to fraud.
Vedoutie Hoobraj, who also is known as Shivonie Deokaran, raised more than $50,000, mostly in and around Ardsley, with poignant appeals about her plight.
But her solicitations were a sham. She was not terminally ill. She did not have cancer. And the money was used, according to a criminal complaint filed by the FBI, for ordinary business and personal expenses.
The scheme began in late 2014 when a friend set up a GoFundMe crowdfunding appeal. Hoobraj’s boyfriend provided the text.
The appeal was titled, “Shivonie’s Fight Against Leukemia.”
“As most of you know,” it said, “Shivonie was diagnosed with leukemia and also cancer on her liver.”
She had no health insurance and was ineligible for Obamacare, the appeal stated. She said she needed help paying for medical and living expenses. Photographs showed her, bald, with her two teen-age sons and boyfriend.
The first appeal raised $10,030 from 83 people.
In 2015, one of her sons created a GoFundMe page titled, “Our Mom Battle with Leukemia.”
Doctors had given Hoobraj 18 months to live, the plea stated. They had to find another place to live in less than a month and they were worried about losing Gia, the family dog.
Hoobraj linked the crowdfunding appeal to a story and photos of Gia on thedodo.com, a site that features compassionate stories and videos about animals and their owners. She “was just told,” the post states, “there’s nothing left they can do.”
The second appeal raised $25,634 from 366 people.
In November 2015, the Ardsley High School football team hosted a spaghetti dinner fundraiser.
The event and other school appeals yielded $16,274.
None of the money was used for cancer-related medical expenses, the complaint states, and was used instead for her photography business, rent and other ordinary living expenses.
Ardsley police began investigating after a donor got suspicious in late 2015. Hoobraj and her boyfriend told officers that she had been treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Mount Kisco Medical Center (Northern Westchester Hospital) and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.
The hospitals had no treatment records for her.
Email from a doctor purportedly conveyed messages about her treatment. The Gmail account was created a few weeks before the first GoFundMe campaign began and deleted a few days after police interviewed her.
She told police that the doctor had died in an earthquake in Nepal. An oncologist by the very same name, who was alive and well and working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, had no recollection of meeting Hoobraj and had never owned or used the Gmail account.
She told investigators that the doctor’s brother also treated her. A doctor with a similar name said he knew Hoobraj socially. She had told him that she had bone marrow cancer but he had never evaluated or treated her.
In March 2016, “in an effort to prove that she had cancer” to a donor, the complaint states, Hoobraj sent a screenshot of lab tests results from Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx.
She had been admitted to Jacobi in late January 2016, complaining of dizziness, nose bleeds and feeling cold. She told medical personnel that she had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2014 and had received 15 rounds of treatment.
Some of the lab results matched the screenshot but key numbers were different. “Your labs turned out to show no abnormalities,” her discharge form said.
Hoobraj moved to Orlando and FBI agents interviewed her there last August. She admitted, according to the complaint, that she did not have leukemia during the fundraising campaigns.
The criminal complaint was unsealed last August in federal court in White Plains. On Jan. 12, she changed her plea to guilty to one count of mail fraud.
Sentencing has been set for April 19.