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Free wedding, now free jail time? Bride accused of faking cancer

April 11, 2012|By Tina Susman | This post has been corrected, as indicated below.
  • Jessica Vega, shown in 2010, has been charged with fraud and grand larceny for getting her "dream wedding" by falsely claiming she was dying of leukemia.
Jessica Vega, shown in 2010, has been charged with fraud and grand larceny… (Jeff Goulding / Times Herald-Record…)

NEW YORK -- A New York woman who received a free wedding dress, free honeymoon tickets to Aruba and a host of other lavish gifts from well-wishers who were told she had just months to live apparently had longer than people thought. She'sĀ been arrested and faces grand larceny and other charges for allegedly faking the illness.

Jessica Vega was arrested in Virginia and extradited to New York's upstate Orange County, where she pleaded not guilty last week to six felonies and one misdemeanor.

"By pretending to have a terminal illness, Vega inexcusably took advantage of the community's hearts and minds, and profited off of their generosity," New York Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman said in a statement. "Our office will hold this individual accountable for fleecing the public through lies and deception."

ABC News reported on Vega's arrest and the circumstances leading up to it Tuesday, but the story first came to light in September 2010, when Vega's marriage turned sour and her ex, Michael O'Connell, came forward just months after the wedding and told the Times Herald-Record newspaper that Vega was not really dying. The paper had featured the April 2010 wedding because of its heartwarming story: a young woman facing imminent death from cancer receiving an outpouring of gifts and cash to fulfill her dream of marrying the father of her child before she died.

O'Connell said he learned it was all a lie, the Times Herald-Record said, and shared the story with the newspaper. It quoted Vega as standing by her story of receiving a cancer diagnosis from a doctor, and it said she accused O'Connell of physically abusing her.

Vega, now 25, is accused of launching the scam two years ago when she walked into a bridal shop in the town of Wallkill and told one of the shop owners, Keri Ciastko, that her short hair was the result of cancer treatment. Ciastko helped arrange a wedding dress, veil and shoes and launched the effort to make the dream wedding and honeymoon happen.

"She pulled at my heartstrings. I've lost a lot of family members to cancer, so I did everything I could to help her," Ciastko told ABC.com. "It seemed so genuine, I never questioned it."

Well-wishers donated everything, including the plane tickets to Aruba, accommodations there -- and cash.

Not everyone believes Vega should go to jail. Some, including her ex-husband, with whom Vega has two children, said she needs help for mental issues. “She's a good mom, and that's all that counts at the end of the day,” O'Connell said, according to the Times Herald-Record. “I want my kids to have their mother back.”

[For the record, 2:55 p.m. April 11: An earlier version of this post referred to New York Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman as the Orange County attorney general.]

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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