WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Strangers donated the beautifully embroidered wedding dress, the two rings, the honeymoon time-share in Aruba. They acted quickly, too, because the bride was dying of cancer. Or so she said.
The state attorney general’s office announced Tuesday that Jessica Vega, 25, has been indicted on charges of fraud and grand larceny for getting her “dream wedding” by falsely claiming she was dying of leukemia.
“By pretending to have a terminal illness, Vega inexcusably took advantage of the community’s hearts and minds, and profited off of their generosity,” said Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “Our office will hold this individual accountable for fleecing the public through lies and deception.”
Vega, formerly of Montgomery, N.Y., was arrested in Virginia on April 3, extradited to New York and arraigned Friday in Orange County Court in Goshen. She pleaded not guilty. A call to the Legal Aid firm that represented her was not immediately returned.
Schneiderman said that in 2010, Vega, then living in Montgomery, claimed she had just a few months to live and wanted a “dream wedding” to Michael O’Connell, father of her year-old daughter.
Her cause spread quickly around the mid-Hudson region, helped by a story in the Times Herald Record. The newspaper said Vega showed a reporter what she said was a doctor’s letter confirming the diagnosis.
Vega also said she planned to leave letters to her daughter that the girl could open after the mother’s death on such occasions as her prom or graduation.
The community was “touched by her story,” the attorney general said.
Lisa Stoker, family friend of the groom and owner of Wallkill River House, told CBS 2’s Hazel Sanchez that vendors came out of the woodwork to give the couple the wedding of their dreams.
Among the alleged victims listed in the indictment is the Nu-Cavu restaurant in Wallkill, where the bridal reception was held and wine and appetizers worth more than $1,000 were donated. Part-owner Carmela Vitolo-Gelsomine said, “We tried to do the best we could for her. We thought she was in a situation where she needed help.”
It wasn’t until after the wedding that Vega’s husband called the vendors to tell them his wife lied about having cancer.
“Honestly it’s hurtful. I’ve lost people personally in my own life to this disease,” said Keri Chiastko, who owns Bella Couture, the bridal store that donated the wedding gown.
“If someone tells you they have four months to live, four to six months to live, all you’re thinking is they have a little girl. She’s going to grow up without a mom. And you want it to be beautiful,” Stroker said.
Stoker was convinced that the alleged deception was Vega’s desperate move to save her rocky relationship with O’Connell. Though she said Vega was wrong, she doesn’t believe the mother of two should be behind bars.
“She saw this as a way, if she was terminal that he would marry her,” Stroker said. “I think she should get mental help and pay restitution to people.”
Vega and O’Connell were married in May 2010. Four months later, O’Connell expressed suspicions to the newspaper, saying he believed the doctor’s letter was fake. Vega said she hadn’t lied.
One of the charges in the indictment says Vega was in possession of a forged document.
The couple divorced, but the Times Herald Record reported Tuesday that O’Connell said they had been living together again in Virginia and had a second child.
“She’s a good mom,” he said. “I want my kids to have their mother back.”
If convicted of fraud or grand larceny, Vega could be sentenced 16 months to four years in prison on each of six counts.
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