Calling her fake cancer scam "despicable" and the pain she caused her family "unspeakable," a Burlington County judge sentenced Lori E. Stilley on Thursday to 500 hours of community service for deceiving neighbors, distant strangers, and even her own children into thinking she was dying.
Stilley, 41, formerly of Delran, pleaded guilty in May to theft by deception for receiving nearly $12,000 in donations from more than 300 people in 20 states after claiming in February 2011 that she had been diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer.
She also created a Facebook page and wrote an e-book about her false struggle that she sold online for $14.95, and duped sympathetic neighbors into delivering meals to her home and funding her wedding.
But what Superior Court Judge James W. Palmer Jr. found "most disturbing," he told Stilley, was that she not only terrified her own young children with tearful regrets that she would never see them marry or even graduate from eighth grade, she had them still believing her cancer had been real, and that she had pleaded guilty to the felony charge only to put the matter behind her.
"I have never heard of such an outrageous thing," he told Stilley, who sat impassively beside her lawyer. "I'm almost speechless. It's despicable what you've done."
Palmer said he was sentencing Stilley to the maximum number of community service hours, plus restitution, rather than jail time because she still had custody of a 13-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
Community service was the recommendation of Andrew McDonnell, the county prosecutor, who called it a "tragic and most unusual case." Stilley had betrayed the "salt-of-the-earth people" of Delran, he said, as well as the kindhearted in many other states and countries.
It was not until November 2011, when Stilley announced a "miraculous" cure just as she was about to enter hospice, that her fraud unraveled. She was arrested last September.
A former judge of Family Court, Palmer said he was so dismayed by the "cruelty" and "abuse" Stilley perpetrated on her own children that he was referring the transcript of the sentencing hearing to that court to guide its oversight of her child custody.
The children did not attend the hearing, which lasted a little more than two hours.
McDonnell told the judge that Stilley's arrest for her fake cancer claim was "not her first brush with the law." In 2004, he said, she had been arrested and charged with receiving $8,892 as a result of a fraudulent medical claim and that she had failed to repay it.
The cancer fraud "defies logic," he said, adding that "I don't think it was profit-motivated," but might have been a result of Stilley's "prescription medicine abuse."
McDonnell then read into testimony a letter from a Delran teacher who said she had leaped to Stilley's cause, was devastated to learn it had been a fraud, and is now dying of cancer herself.
"Lori has no idea how much hurt she has caused," she wrote. "What a lost soul she is."
Stilley, who now lives with her second husband in Chester County, never addressed the court except to answer several yes-or-no questions.
Her attorney, Adam S. Malamut, presented the judge with letters from her parents and five others asking that she receive a lenient sentence, and asked that she be required to serve 100 hours of community service, the minimum.
The most powerful moments of the hearing came from Stilley's younger sister and ex-husband, both of whom asked the judge to impose the maximum allowable punishment because of the emotional damage she wrought on her family, especially their children.
Lisa DiGiovanni broke into tears several times before handing her prepared text to her husband, who began reading it for her. After composing herself she took the text back and finished it herself.
DiGiovanni said that in early January 2011, her sister had called to tell her a scan had revealed a small but treatable tumor, and instructed her not to tell their parents. Weeks later she learned from her parents that her sister had told them she had been diagnosed with stage-three bladder cancer with little hope of survival.
"I couldn't sleep," she told the judge. "My life became consumed with helping Lori," who did not have health insurance. DiGiovanni said she printed and sold "Team Lori Strong" T-shirts to raise money for supposed medical treatments, and that summer organized a "beef and beer" fund-raiser.
In time, she said, Stilley took to a wheelchair, even appearing in it at DiGiovanni's daughter's soccer match, where the girl sobbed in her aunt's arms, believing she would soon never see her again.
Both her children have been devastated to learn their aunt had so betrayed their trust, she said, adding that her teenage son had become withdrawn and was in counseling to deal with the resulting depression.
She also said the fraud had isolated her from her parents, who have sided with Stilley and severed ties with DiGiovanni and her family.
"My sister faked an illness, but she has taken so many lives," DiGiovanni told the judge, and asked him to impose "the maximum penalties."
She was followed by Stilley's ex-husband, Brian Schenski, the father of her 13-year-old daughter. He said Stilley's claim to be dying and in acute pain had filled the girl with such anxiety that she had been reluctant to visit him or even go to school for fear "that Mommy would die when she was not home."
Worse, he said, Stilley manipulated the girl's fears, once demanding to know, "How could you be so mean when you know Mommy's dying?" after they had a typical and trifling mother-daughter spat.
His daughter became "riddled with worry," he said, and was "constantly having a funeral for her mother in her head."
At the close of the hearing, Palmer told Stilley he had never seen a defendant in a criminal trial display so little evidence of remorse. "You didn't appear to be serious about this offense, and this disturbs me," he said.
"You've got to understand that this was just awful."