How's this for a give-me-your money line: If you don't help me, I'll die.
Jenna Esslinger used that story to cash in on other people's sympathy to the tune of 12-thousand dollars, according to investigators.
"It's heart-wrenching. This woman defrauded her own family," said Berks County District Attorney John Adams.
Esslinger, 25, took money from family, friends and strangers, according to detectives. She spun a tale that convinced people in her community she was a single mom, raising two little boys on her own and battling a rare and deadly cancer.
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Local newspapers picked up the story and she even posted a plea for help on her my MySpace page.
Jenna told the Pottstown Mercury last November her 4-year old was coping well, considering she'd been in the hospital for as long as a week at a time. “He asks, ‘Mommy, are you still sick?’” Esslinger said. “He doesn’t understand he can’t climb on me.”
Esslinger said she'd even joined an online support group that she found “more scary than helpful.”
One thing to feel good about, there are lots of folks who will jump in fast to help you out in the Reading area. People and organizations came to her aid with donations and events like bake sales and spaghetti dinners to raise money that was put in a fund set up in her behalf.
She told the Reading Eagle her rare condition – Amyloidosis and Transistional Cell Cancer – went undiagnosed for four years and her only hope now was an expensive bone marrow transplant that insurance wouldn't fully cover. Treatments would cost close to six figures.
“It breaks my heart that, as young as we all are, I know I’ll never be able to have anything nice for my kids,” she said in that article, which ended with this quote about her future, “It’s a broken road. There doesn’t seem to be an end to this in sight.”
The end came for Jenna when someone with the Lions club said he'd like to have a doctor's letter verifying her condition before he handed over the $6,000 his organization raised, according to court documents. He did get an email with a doctor's letter attached but it just didn't look right. He called to verify and the doctor's office said the letter didn't come from them. The next phone call was to police.
During their investigation, detectives said they found $12,000 had been collected for Jenna and nearly all of it spent from her cancer treatment fund. About $1,000 was used for medical expenses. But Esslinger doesn't have cancer and she never did, according to investigators.
Esslinger surrendered Wednesday. She's charged with violating state nonprofit solicitation laws, forgery and related offenses. She faces up to 20 years in the big house if she's convicted.