An Illinois woman who pretended to have ovarian cancer said she just wanted to belong, to be accepted after years of abuse and mental illness. Alissa Jackson's friends, neighbors and strangers in southwestern Illinois — and far beyond — just wanted to help the 32-year-old mother of five whom they believed was terminally ill.
Jackson's yearslong deceit culminated Tuesday in a St. Clair County courtroom, where her husband and four of their children watched as she was led away in handcuffs after Circuit Judge Jan Fiss handed down a three-year prison sentence for fraud. The charges stem from an online campaign and a succession of charity fundraisers on behalf of "Alissa's Army" that netted her thousands of dollars, donated meals, a free vacation, vehicles and more.
"People everywhere opened their hearts and wallets with every Facebook post from Alissa's Army," said Jennifer Huelsmann, describing a friendship that began in February 2012 after noticing Jackson — the mother of her daughter's best friend — wearing a protective face mask and knit cap, intravenous tubes protruding from her arm, at a school volleyball game.
Huelsmann estimated that online fundraising efforts and several community events netted Jackson more than $50,000. St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly declined to disclose a specific dollar amount tied to the scam and said prosecutors will seek restitution at a separate hearing in several weeks.
Jackson didn't testify on her behalf, instead relying on her lawyer to read her written statement. Both her husband and defense attorney described a troubled childhood marked by sexual abuse, drug addiction and, after the birth of her children, severe postpartum depression.
"Money — that's not what she was looking for," said St. Louis lawyer Patrick Kilgore. "She was looking for the camraderie, the friendship, the relationships, the sense of belonging."
Jackson said in her statement that she began taking chemotherapy medicine unnecessarily in early 2012 and that her in intent was self-harm, not deception.
"I simply wanted to think and feel nothing at all," Jackson wrote. "Over time it became easier to say I had cancer than to describe the hell I was going through."
The fraud unraveled in April 2014 after Jackson told Huelsmann, her husband and others that she was at the hospital on the verge of death, even sharing photos purportedly from her emergency room bed.
A check of hospital records showed she had not been admitted. Jackson was arrested in June 2014 and pleaded guilty in December to two counts of theft of more than $500 by deception.
Jackson could have been sentenced to probation or up to five years in prison. Kelly asked the judge for a four-year prison sentence.