A tight-knit community in Maine that has been rallying around a young woman battling breast cancer is shocked to learn she may have been faking it.
Hillary McLellan, 25, of Sebago, is charged with theft by deception, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for allegedly faking her cancer diagnosis and accepting more than $10,000 in donations.
"She seemed like just a sweet, young lady," said Bob Wentworth, owner of the 302 West Smokehouse & Tavern in Fryeburg.
Wentworth said McLellan was a frequent customer and a well-liked bartender in the area.
"She was someone that appeared to be somewhat on her own, and going through what could have been a life-threatening situation," said Wentworth.
When he heard that there had been fundraisers for McLellan's medical expenses, he decided to write her a check to cover one month's rent. He will never forget how she thanked him.
"To be able to smile, and be such a good actress," he said. "To be almost teary, and go to that length to deceive ... it does give your trust a hit."
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When McLellan claimed to be undergoing chemotherapy, but did not show any signs of sickness, friends got suspicious. Under the direction of Bridgton Police, they staged an intervention and recorded the conversation.
"I don't have cancer," McLellan can be heard in the recording. She tried to defend herself by saying she did have a lump removed.
"I'm still going through tests," she said in the recording.
But when a friend pressed her to admit "this whole last year and a half has been a game," McLellan answered "yes."
That recording led to an indictment, listing 16 "victims" – businesses and individuals who donated to her fund.
On Tuesday morning in Cumberland County Superior court, McLellan entered a not guilty plea. She is free on $1,000 cash bail, without conditions. She is due back in court in August.
One woman who donated to McLellan but did not want to be identified sent necn a statement, reacting to the case:
"The town of Bridgton pulled together, as it always does, to help one of our own. As angry as we were to hear she had lied about having cancer, we remain proud of our town's generosity and kindness. We will not let this unfortunate incident harden our hearts or discourage us from being generous in the future."