A Westchester woman has been arrested by federal agents in Florida, accused of pretending she had cancer in order to solicit money online, ultimately raising $50,000, then fleeing the state.
"It's so selfish, I can't even put a word on it," Rob Wootten, co-president of the school booster club that raised $16,000 in a fundraiser for the woman, told News 4 Friday. "She played a great role, she put on a good act, she had everybody fooled."
The woman, Vedoutie Hoobraj, using the alias Shivonie Deokaran, spent two years from October 2014 through March 2016 faking a terminal cancer diagnosis, according to a federal complaint, even shaving her head as if she was going through chemotherapy.
In October 2014, a friend set up a fundraising page for Hoobraj online, describing Hoobraj as a single mother working as a photographer to support her two sons "while fighting through ongoing chemotherapy and blood transfusions," and said that she had no insurance of any kind.
The page showed photos of Hoobraj, with a shaved head, posing with her teen sons and her boyfriend at the time.
The next summer, in August 2015, one of Hoobraj's sons, then 16 years old, created another GoFundMe page, saying, "the Drs is [sic] giving our Mom a timeline of 18 months," and "My mom and our family is worried about losing [the family dog] Gia, we have until September 10, 2015 to find a new place to live... where they will allow us to keep Gia."
The bank account linked to both fundraising pages belonged to Hoobraj, according to prosecutors.
On the same day that Hoobraj's son set up the GoFundMe page, the fundraiser was publicized in an article online, in which Hoobraj was quoted as being told "there's nothing left they can do -- she has only 18 months left to live."
Hoobraj then emailed the link to the article to a guidance counselor at her son's high school, Ardsley High School. The counselor donated $50 and sent the link to other people. The following month, the school football team organized a spaghetti fundraising dinner, raising more than $16,000 for Hoobraj.
The FBI says Hoobraj used all the money from cancer-related solicitations to pay rent, ordinary living expenses and businesses expenses, among other things. None was used for any apparent cancer-related medical expenses.
When police started talking to Hoobraj and her then-boyfriend, Nikhlesh Parekh, in January 2016, Hoobraj continued to lie, authorities say. She maintained she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and claimed that the doctor at Sloan Kettering Medical Center who diagnosed her had died in an earthquake in Nepal the previous April.
She said she was being treated by another doctor, and that she'd gone to Mount Kisco Medical Center and Bronx Lebanon Hospital for treatments. Her boyfriend believed she had cancer, and forwarded emails to police purporting to show correspondence between Hoobraj and a doctor discussing treatment.
The email address turned out to be fake -- but the name belonged to a real doctor at Sloan Memorial Kettering, who, when interviewed by FBI, never recalled meeting or having any contact with Hoobraj.
The hospitals that Hoobraj claimed to have gotten treatment also had no records of ever treating her.
Parekh said he began fielding calls from media outlets and local authorities, and that's when he became aware of Hoobraj's alleged scam. He spoke to News 4 over the phone in the wake of his ex-girlfriend's arrest Friday.
"How can a person lie about something like this, especially to people that have been there to help her?" he said.
One donor who became suspicious about Hoobraj's cancer claims confronted her about it in December 2015, according to prosecutors. Hoobraj sent her a Facebook message the next March showing purported lab tests performed at Jacobi Medical Center; she allegedly forged the data indicating her platelet and red blood cell counts.
Hoobraj had actually taken a blood test at Jacobi, according to prosecutors -- she had gone to Jacobi in late January 2016 complaining of dizziness, nose bleeds and feeling cold. She told doctors there that she'd been diagnosed with leukemia by a doctor in Guyana in December 2014 and received 15 rounds of treatement, but had no records of her diagnosis.
But the test showed no sign of cancer. When she was discharged from Jacobi, her patient form said she was diagnosed with "adult failure to thrive," and said, "you were seen in the ED for worsening dizziness and weight loss. Your labs turned out to show no abnormalities."
By August 2017, she was tracked down in Orlando by FBI agents. She admitted to them she didn't have leukemia when she was collecting money and that she "made a mistake" she wishes she could take back, according to the complaint.
An FBI spokeswoman said Hoobraj was arrested Friday morning in Orlando. She's expected to appear in federal court in Middle District of Florida later Friday.
The U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan is expected to release more details Friday. Attempts to reach Hoobraj and her attorney in Florida were not immediately successful Friday.
A spokesman for GoFundMe said in a statement, "There are unfortunate and rare instances where people create campaigns with the intention to take advantage of others' generosity. In the small handful of cases where misuse occurs, GoFundMe takes action to resolve the issue. The user has been banned and GoFundMe will offer refunds to all GoFundMe donors."
Hanna Horvath contributed reporting to this story.