ARAPAHOE COUNTY, Colo. - An Arapahoe County mother has been arrested for allegedly perpetrating a hoax that her 6-year-old son had cancer and accepting $25,000 in community donations that she used to take her family to Disneyland, authorities said Friday.
Arapahoe County Sheriff's Captain Larry Etheridge said Sandy Thi Nguyen convinced her son and other family members that he had cancer.
"We don't have any reason to believe that anyone other than her knew the truth," Ethridge said. "The little boy believed he had cancer. The rest of the family believed he had cancer."
Sheriff's investigators recovered $23,000 in cash when they executed a search warrant at the Nguyen family home on Thursday. Investigators then arrested the 28-year-old mother on investigation of theft and criminal impersonation to gain benefit, both felony charges.
Nguyen has been released from jail after posting a $10,000 bond.
The sheriff's office said it launched an investigation March 7 "into an alleged scam wherein a mother was claiming that her 6-year-old son had cancer which gained her financial benefit through charitable donations."
Etheridge said the investigation after the Department of Human Services received information that the boy may not have cancer and human services alerted the sheriff's office.
The investigation determined that Sandy Nguyen "did convince her son, family and community that her 6-year-old son had cancer and was receiving cancer treatment since approximately September 2012," the sheriff's office said.
Sandy Nguyen's Facebook page has a banner photograph of her two daughters and 6-year-old son in which the boy has a bald head, resembling a cancer patient who's lost hair during chemotherapy treatment. In other photos, the boy has a full head of hair.
In September 2013, the community began raising money for the boy, including fundraisers at the boy's school, Rolling Hills Elementary, and donations by students, parents, school staff and other community members, according to sheriff's officials and the Cherry Creek School District. More than $25,000 was raised and placed into an account for use by the Nguyen family.
"Over the last several months, Ms. Nguyen accepted at least $16,000.00 from that account, as well as a trip to Disneyland for herself and family, which was paid for by the donated funds," sheriff's officials said.
During an interview with investigators, Nguyen "admitted that her son does not have cancer, and stated that some of the money recovered from the residence was from donations [she] received," according to the sheriff's office.
A website promoting an October 2013 5K charity walk and run for the boy said he was diagnosed in April 2012 with "an aggressive, rare, stage 3 childhood bone cancer and Acute Myelogenous Leukemia." It said the boy initially "received 317 days of chemotherapy, 7 days of radiation, multiple blood & platelet transfusions, monthly spinal taps, biopsies, and MRI's."
In June 2013, the boy's "family was told he probably only had 8 more months with them," the website said.
Despite times when the child was declared "cancer free" the 6 year old is "now fighting cancer for the 3rd time," event promoters wrote. The 5K event, which sold out for walkers and runners, was also receiving contributions from the business community.
The mother's Facebook page contains a photograph of Nguyen, her husband and their three children at Disneyland. There was also a photo of the family wearing red T-shirts for the 5K charity walk-and-run, emblazoned with the words "Team" and the boy's first name.
On Friday night, the Facebook page was pulled down.
Rolling Hills Elementary School Principal Darla Thompson sent a letter Friday to parents informing them of Sandy Nguyen's arrest "for allegedly spreading false information about" her child "having a serious illness."
"We are deeply troubled by these allegations and saddened to learn that an adult may have taken advantage of an innocent child and our school community. But the allegations do not, in any way, diminish the concern and support demonstrated by the Rolling Hills community for a child believed to be facing a life-threatening challeng," the principal wrote. "It is important for our community to continue to show support and compassion for this child, who is also a victim in this case. The child was wrongfully led to believe that he was ill, and he was not responsible for the parent’s alleged actions.
School district spokeswoman Tustin Amole said, "Obviously, this came as a shock. First and foremost, we are very pleased that this boy does not have cancer."
But Amole added that there is a "terrible, terrible sense of betrayal."