Sorority girl who faked cancer pleads guilty to scamming classmates for over $10,000

She shaved her head and told friends she had stomach cancer

The sorority girl accused of faking cancer and netting thousands of dollars in medical fee donations has pleaded guilty to theft by deception.

Kelly Schmahl, 19, who told her sorority sisters and classmates that she had stage three stomach cancer and pocketed over $10,000 from charitable donors, entered a guilty plea this afternoon at Kenton County Circuit Court in Kentucky.

She is scheduled for sentencing on December 4th and is expected to be placed into a diversion or rehabilitation program.

Kelly Schmahl

Kelly Schmahl

Schmahl's case, which first came to light earlier this year, continues to mystify her friends and family. The former Northern Kentucky University student shaved her head, told friends she had a Stage 3 Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor and appeared at fundraising events her friends organized for her in a wheelchair.

Schmahl, who repeatedly told her friends and sorority sisters at Delta Zeta she was going to chemotherapy, also set up a cellphone forwarding service to give the impression incoming texts and calls were being answered by healthcare workers.

Her parents told reporters at the time that they believed their daughter was seriously ill. "We are all searching for answers as to why she would participate in this deception," they said.

Schmahl earlier this year at a fundraising event held by her friends

Schmahl earlier this year at a fundraising event held by her friends

Friends close to Schmahl have told The Tab they are equally confused as to why this happened.

"She was always a nice person, I never heard her talk back to anyone," said Rachel Sydnor, a student at Western Kentucky University. Back in 2015, she was Schmahl's roommate for a residential entrepreneurship course at Transylvania University.

Schmahl, right and her friend Rachel Sydnor, left

Schmahl, right and her friend Rachel Sydnor, left

"I could not imagine Kelly doing something like this," she explained. "It's so strange it almost makes me feel like she's not behind it. She was one of my close friends while I was on the course with her and we kept in touch after it. Whenever I heard she had cancer I messaged her to say I was sorry and sent my condolences. She said thanks and that she appreciated it. After I found out I was very, very shocked. I could not believe someone could do that. Who knows why she did it."

Nick Colosimo, a current student at the University of Cincinnati, met Schmahl when they were both in high school and became close. They spoke regularly during the period he believed she had cancer.

"She was always one of the sweetest people," he told us. "She was just misguided. Obviously, what she did is despicable. It's just something that's weird to process. She isn't a criminal mastermind.

"She would never really give any details [about her fraudulent cancer treatment] but she'd say something like 'I'm just tired' or 'I'm feeling really sick today.' She would say that 'It's chemo day' and stuff along those lines."

When he heard the news, he explained he wasn't angry, just "confused."

Schmahl and her sorority sisters

Schmahl and her sorority sisters

"Nobody had any idea that it was all a ruse," added photographer Kevin Kunkemoeller in an interview with The Tab – he was hired for a photoshoot after she told friends about her diagnosis. "I feel sorry for the girl to be honest. I have no idea, I haven't spoken to her since I took those photographs. She was a very messed up kid but my interaction with her was very pleasant.

"We all met at a local park here in Cincinnati, one of her girlfriends set it up. She was a very pleasant kid. At one point I asked her what type of malady she had, and she rattled off a rather long name which I can't recall. Some gastro-intestinal thing. At that time I felt really bad for her because she was young.

"Then fast-forward several months and I saw her picture on the news. I was so shocked, I literally just sat there. I felt bad for her. She's what, 19 years old? I reached out to her friend who had set up her photoshoot and we had a brief conversation. I can't say I was ever mad at her and I'm certainly not now. I hope she's making progress, she's a very sweet kid."

We have contacted Schmahl and her legal representation for comment. We reached her former sorority, Delta Zeta, and were then contacted by NKU Panhellenic, who said: "Our Panhellenic women have no further response on the matter of Kelly Schmahl and only our Panhellenic Present and Greek Advisor are permitted to speak to the media about this matter and they have no statement at this time."

Why would anyone lie about having cancer?

Nobody could have expected Kelly Schmahl to stage an elaborate hoax and convince her friends she had cancer. So why did she do it?

Adrienne Gonzalez, the creator of GoFraudMe, a site that exposes tricksters who scam medical fundraising donations, explains:

"No one can know for sure what drives someone to fake an illness as serious as cancer, surely there's a mental health component to it. In many of these cases, there is of course a financial component as well, but I have to believe that isn't the primary factor. I just find it unconscionable that someone would wake up one day and say to themselves 'Hey, I should fake a terminal illness for money!'

"What makes Kelly Schmahl's case and those like it so egregious is that she fooled those closest to her. It isn't even about the money at that point, it's about leading your loved ones to believe they may lose you soon. That's the real evil here.

"I wish there were some advice to give to donors on how to avoid giving to these phony cases, however just as we've seen with Kelly and others like her, the fakes are quite convincing. But I'd say if something feels off, just don't donate. It's unfortunate that people have to be so skeptical due to the misdeeds of others but it is what it is."

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