A judge sentenced a Michigan woman to a year behind bars Wednesday in an "almost mind-boggling" scam that tricked an insurance company and swindled big-hearted people in small communities who believed she was dying of cancer.
Authorities said it was all an extraordinary lie: No doctor has ever stepped forward to even suggest that Sara Ylen had cancer.
Ylen, 38, already is serving a minimum five-year prison sentence in another case of deceit, and the one-year punishment for fraud will run at the same time.
Ylen claimed she developed cervical cancer from a sexual assault in 2001 and was regularly treated at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Ill. The Michigan-based Mercy Hospice cut her off in 2011 after two years when tests showed her life wasn't in peril. The cancer hospital said it had no record of her as a patient.
The Lexington resident accepted thousands of dollars from supporters who for years regularly read of her plight in the Port Huron Times Herald. She repeatedly forged medical records, including documents that bore the letterhead of cancer specialists at the University of Michigan.
In January, Ylen pleaded no contest to fraud through false pretenses and false statements. A no-contest plea in Michigan is treated like a regular conviction for the purpose of a sentence.
"All of these fraudulent acts that you perpetrated on so many people, and the extent that you went to perpetrate them, is almost mind-boggling," Sanilac County Circuit Judge Donald Teeple said. "You took advantage of the goodwill and generosity of people who were more than willing to assist you, all based on lies."
Ylen was silent in court, about 90 miles northeast of Detroit, and has never given a public explanation. Wearing prison shackles and an oversized coat, she also declined to comment as officers escorted her to a van for a return trip to prison, where she is serving a sentence for falsely accusing two men of rape.
Outside court, defense attorney David Heyboer didn't shed much light on her behalf.
"I don't know what took place. I'm not a doctor," he told The Associated Press as he walked swiftly to his car. "I don't know if you're going to have a heart attack in a minute."
Prosecutor Brenda Sanford acknowledged that some people might consider the sentence light. She said the judge simply followed Michigan law.
"There was nothing he could do to give her additional time," Sanford said.
Ylen owes about $122,000 to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, mostly for the hospice care. A 2012 event at Croswell Wesleyan Church raised $10,800 for her bills, but the church has not asked for repayment. It was just a fraction of the money given by people over the years.
"There was a time when I wanted to hear her say, 'I'm sorry.' I would have given her a big hug," said Sue Nieghorn, who organized the church fundraiser and attended the court hearing. "But I don't have that expectation anymore. She's still saying she's sick. A no-contest plea is not saying, 'I'm guilty.'"
The public first learned about Ylen in 2003 when she agreed to be featured in "Sara's Story," an award-winning series in the Port Huron newspaper, in which she talked about being raped in daylight in the parking lot of a major retail store in 2001. Her alleged attacker, James Grissom, was sentenced to at least 15 years in prison.
But Grissom was released from prison in 2012 after a judge threw out his rape conviction. Police in Bakersfield, Calif., said Ylen made up rape allegations during a 2001 trip there, evidence that wasn't available to Grissom to challenge her credibility when he was on trial.
A psychologist, Daniel Kachman, evaluated Ylen as part of her divorce case. In a court filing, he told a judge that she often feels "dependent and dejected" and takes on the "role of martyr."