Iowa woman who made fake cancer claims to raise nearly $40,000 avoids prison: "I didn't do this for money"

Iowa woman who made fake cancer claims to raise nearly $40,000 avoids prison: “I didn’t do this for money”

An Iowa woman who falsely claimed to have cancer and documented her “battle” on social media will stay out of prison after a judge gave her probation and a suspended sentence. 

Madison Russo, 20, never had pancreatic cancer, leukemia nor the football-sized tumor wrapped around her spine she that claimed in postings on TikTok, GoFundMe, Facebook and LinkedIn. But over 400 people sent her donations. As part of the 10-year suspended sentence handed down Friday, she was ordered to pay $39,000 in restitution and a $1,370 fine. If she stays out of trouble for three years of probation, she’ll stay free.

This photo provided by the Scott County Jail shows Madison Russo.  Scott County Jail via AP

The Bettendorf woman pleaded guilty in June to first-degree theft. In court on Friday, Judge John Telleen declined a defense request that would have wiped the conviction off her record if she completes probation successfully. He said people who deal with her in the future should know that she once engaged in a “criminal scheme,” and that “serious crimes must have serious consequences.”


Her scam unraveled when the Eldridge Police Department said anonymous witnesses with “medical experience” pointed out “medical discrepancies” in Russo’s social media presence to the investigating officer, KCCI reported. A subpoena for medical records found Russo had “never been diagnosed with any kind of cancer or tumor from any medical facilities within the Quad Cities or surrounding cities,” according police.

She was arrested in January.

Scott County prosecutor Kelly Cunningham recommended against prison time because Russo had no criminal history, had good grades in college, was employed and was unlikely to reoffend. That bothered Rhonda Miles, who runs a pancreatic cancer foundation in Nashville, Tennessee, that donated to Russo and testified at the hearing.

“It was devastating to sit there and watch the Scott County prosecuting attorney act like a defending attorney, so that was tough,” Miles 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?”

Russo apologized to the court and her victims, and said she wished she had sought out help regarding her family.

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