SANDUSKY, MI - A woman who for years claimed she had end-stage cancer pleaded no contest Monday to fraud in a scheme that had brought her widespread sympathy and financial support in small eastern Michigan communities.
Sara Ylen, wearing handcuffs and an orange jail suit, answered a series of yes-or-no-questions during a brief appearance in Sanilac County court, 90 miles northeast of Detroit. It's not the only criminal case linked to her shattered credibility: She is due in a different court Friday to be sentenced for making a false report of rape against two men in 2012.
Ylen, 38, of Lexington claimed she developed cervical cancer from a sexual assault in 2001 and was regularly treated at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Ill. But Mercy Hospice cut her off in 2011 when tests showed her life wasn't in peril. By then, her insurer had paid about $100,000 for the service. The cancer hospital also said it had no record of her as a patient.
Meanwhile, people in small communities in Michigan's Thumb region who didn't know about the doubts by medical professionals continued to support Ylen. In 2012, she was in a wheelchair at a Croswell Wesleyan Church auction and spaghetti dinner that raised $10,800 for everyday bills.
"They were so stunned they were taken in," prosecutor Brenda Sanford said in an interview outside court, referring to Ylen's allies. "She loved the spotlight, the attention."
Ylen pleaded no contest to fraud through false pretenses as well as fraud through false statements. A no-contest plea means a defendant concedes prosecutors have enough evidence to convict but it's not an admission of guilt. Nonetheless, it's treated the same as a regular conviction for sentencing purposes. The maximum punishment is 10 years in prison, although she'll get much less when she returns to court on Feb. 19.
Ylen declined to comment as she waited for an elevator with her attorney, David Heyboer, and a sheriff's deputy.
"Not today," Heyboer replied when an Associated Press reporter asked Ylen if she had a message for the community.
The public first learned about Ylen in 2003 when she agreed be featured in "Sara's Story," an award-winning series in the Port Huron Times Herald, in which she talked about being raped in daylight in the parking lot of a major retail store two years earlier. Her alleged attacker, James Grissom, was sentenced to at least 15 years in prison.
She said she wanted people to see her as a "victor," not a "victim." Readers inspired by the series started a fund to send her to community college.
In 2009, the newspaper reported that Ylen was near death, a victim of cervical cancer that had spread to her bones. Friends raised money for her, bathed her, doted on her two sons and cut her grass in 100-degree heat.
Grissom was released from prison in 2012 after a judge threw out his rape conviction. Police in Bakersfield, Calif., said Ylen made up rape allegations during a 2001 trip there, evidence that wasn't available to Grissom to challenge her credibility when he was on trial in 2003. The St. Clair County prosecutor declined to pursue a second trial.
Mike Connell, a Times Herald columnist who wrote the rape series and stories about Ylen's health, said his wife and others saw her without hair and hooked up to morphine drips over the years.
"She conned a lot of people, including me," Connell said in an interview Monday. "The worst thing that she did was to her own family. How would you be if you thought your mother was dying of cancer and it's all fiction? How cruel is that?"