According to prosecutors, Brittany Ozarowski, 21 used donation jars, flyers and even her own website to convince hundreds of generous donors and store owners that she was suffering from inoperable brain and bone cancer and couldn't afford her chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
In fact, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said Wednesday, Ozarowski lied about her cancer and was collecting money to feed a "voracious" heroin addiction.
"The defendant perpetrated an absolutely despicable scam," Spota said. "She has no conscience at all."
In all, prosecutors said at least 25 businesses in Suffolk and Nassau counties were taken in by the scam, allowing Ozarowski to leave a donation jar that was filled weekly with money from people who wanted to help.
"She broke my heart and she broke a lot of hearts," said Liz Patricola, the owner of a Miller Place pet store and herself a breast cancer survivor.
After Ozarowski visited her shop, Patricola said she organized a fundraiser, complete with shirts reading "Suds Up for Brittany." The event raised around $4,000.
The owner of a neighboring food store also helped organize a dinner dance that raised more than $7,000 for Ozarowski. Tom O'Grady of the Tuscany Gourmet Market also handed the 21-year-old $5,000 of his own money, and his wife treated Ozarowski to a day at the salon and new clothes before the event.
"She looked frail and walked with a cane. She was completely believable," O'Grady said. "When we heard this was a scam, my wife was devastated."
Ozarowski even duped her own grandmother, who prosecutors said gave her $100,000.
A 24-count indictment against Ozarowski was unsealed Wednesday. She remains in custody, awaiting her arraignment.
Her court-appointed attorney, identified by prosecutors as George Duncan, declined to comment.
According to the district attorney, Ozarowski's scam unraveled when donors like O'Grady and Patricola became suspicious.
"We offered her rides to her treatments, but she always backed out at the last minute," said O'Grady.
The head of one local cancer charity, a man who lost his son to the disease, eventually alerted investigators after offering to pay Ozarowski's doctors directly. Instead, Spota said, she asked for more cash paid directly to her.
"She was desperate, all right," said Spota. "Desperate for heroin and more heroin."
Ozarowski has prior arrests for drug charges on Long Island and in Florida, Spota said. As part of her scam, the DA said she used forged doctors' notes to convince court officials to postpone her appearances.
Only about $300 of the money has been recovered, Spota said. Ozarowski's father is "cooperating," Spota said, but prosecutors would not rule out his possible involvement in the scam.
"She hurt a lot of people," said O'Grady. "We could have helped a lot of people who really needed it."