MILLER PLACE, N.Y. (AP) — Those who took one look at Brittany Ozarowski had no doubt she was battling cancer. Her face was drawn and gaunt. She weighed a mere 80 pounds, hobbled gingerly on a cane, and complained of the toll chemotherapy and radiation treatments were taking on her fragile body.
Neighbors and friends wanted to help so much they gladly put donation jars on store counters, pulled cash out of their own pockets and organized fundraisers — including a dinner dance and a dog-washing event — that together raised tens of thousands of dollars. Ozarowski also had a website showing her in a wheelchair next to the plea: “Help Save My Life.”
But then people began to wonder: Why didn’t she lose her hair after chemotherapy? Why didn’t she show up for a free exam at a neurologist? Why did she hang up when a man who ran a cancer charity offered $10,000 in treatments paid directly to a hospital?
The explanation from prosecutors hit this middle-class Long Island suburban community like a punch in the gut: The 21-year-old Ozarowski wasn’t battling cancer at all, they say, but was scamming people out of their money to feed a growing addiction to heroin.
“There was no cancer, no chemotherapy or radiation,” Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said. “All there was was heroin and more heroin.”
Prosecutors say there is no way of knowing how much money Ozarowski pocketed in the alleged scam, because so many of the donations were in cash.
There was $317 in the collection jar when she was arrested soliciting donations outside a supermarket on Easter, and investigators say there were at least two dozen jars in restaurants, pizzerias and stores across Long Island that Ozarowski collected from regularly over the past year.
More than 60 potential victims have called prosecutors since the arrest, along with dozens of cancer patients who have called just to vent their outrage.
“It wasn’t just about the money,” said Elizabeth Patricola, owner of “Paws N Claws” pet grooming, and a breast cancer survivor who befriended the young woman after she and her grandmother came to her shop in March 2012. “It was about the principle and the caring, the faith that we have in people. Everyone came together as a community to help. It broke my heart.”
Ozarowski told various versions of having either ovarian cancer, stomach cancer, bone cancer and brain cancer, prosecutors said. Patricola, who has been cancer free for four years, became suspicious when the young woman explained not losing her hair after chemotherapy because of “special vitamins.”
“I’m so mad and I’m so sad at the same time,” said Denise Bambola, a next-door neighbor in the Selden community where Ozarowski grew up. “I held her. I let her call me mama. I took care of her. She hurt me deeply.”
Tom O’Grady, owner of the Tuscany Gourmet Market, took a special interest after learning Ozarowski graduated from the same high school as his children. He said the woman’s grandmother first came into his butcher shop in March 2012. In the ensuing months, he got to know Ozarowski and figures he gave her $5,000 in increments of about $300 over several months.
“She played on the heartstrings of the public,” he said. “All of this money could have went to a family that really needed it. We took it away from another child that needed help. It just sucks, in plain English.”
O’Grady said his wife took Ozarowski shopping for a new dress, hair and makeup for a fundraiser at the local Moose lodge that netted $7,200. Weeks later, she asked for more money for a neurologist. He arranged through a friend to get her free treatments from a neurologist at Stony Brook Medical Center, but she never showed, he said.
Ozarowski, a petite, doe-eyed woman who looks younger than her 21 years, worked for a time as a receptionist. She is being held on $75,000 bail after pleading not guilty to grand larceny, forgery and other charges in a 24-count indictment. If convicted, she could get up to seven years in prison.
Prosecutors say Ozarowski has a history of drug arrests dating to 2010. The forgery charges in the indictment are linked to doctor’s notes she allegedly wrote seeking postponement of court dates from four prior arrests.
Her attorney, George Duncan, said if the allegations of a drug problem are true, his client’s actions reflect a person who “obviously went to great lengths to support that habit and she is in need of some sort of help or rehabilitation.” Duncan declined a request from The Associated Press to interview her in jail.
Suspicious donors went to authorities late last year, and an investigation continues into whether Ozarowski had any assistance. The young woman’s grandmother, identified as Judith Ozarowski, sold her Selden home and left town. Prosecutors said the woman told them she gave her granddaughter $100,000 in proceeds from the sale of the house, but they were still investigating that claim.
It’s hardly the first such scam. An Alabama woman was sentenced this month to 20 years in prison for collecting donations after lying about her son having cancer. In Arizona, a woman faces sentencing next month after admitting lying about needing a bone marrow transplant. Last year, an upstate New York woman admitted facing cancer so donors would pay for her “dream wedding” and Caribbean honeymoon. She spent about two months in jail and was forced to pay back $13,000.
But area addiction specialists say the Ozarwoski case could be another symptom of a growing heroin problem in the area. Jeffrey Reynolds, the executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, said that in the last four years, the number of people seeking assistance from opiate addiction has soared from 100 to 700 a month.
“I worry that she will become the poster child for heroin addiction,” Reynolds said. “She makes it harder for people to seek treatment, and I think she makes it harder for charities, because people will be less likely to donate.”