A woman who faked cancer for herself and her son to get donations will serve 18 months in prison with nearly three years of probation afterward.
Melissa D. Barton, 28, pleaded guilty in October to two counts of felony theft by deception. She appeared before Madison County Circuit Judge Kyle Napp on Monday for sentencing.
Police learned in the summer of 2014 that Barton was asking for and receiving money from religious organizations, individuals and online donation sites after she told people that she had cancer and her son had leukemia.
Barton has said she believed she had cancer after finding a lump in her breast, and the fundraising drives were set up by others without consulting her. But the detective who investigated the case, former Troy Police Det. Chris Coyne, said he found she was fully aware of the online fundraising and cashed the checks.
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Coyne said the Troy community rallied behind Barton and her son, as the prosecution showed a photo of a gas station marquee reading “Team Mason: We Love You.” He read extensive Facebook posts from Barton with specific details of diagnosis, drugs, chemotherapy, doctors’ names and more about her son’s alleged leukemia and her own “breast cancer.”
But Coyne said one of the people helping with the fundraisers had a medical background, and he became suspicious that some of the details and photos were inconsistent with the cancer treatment that was supposedly going on.
During Coyne’s lengthy testimony, the prosecution played videos that Barton posted online thanking her supporters as she supposedly reacted to biopsies, diagnosis and treatment. “I just wanted to do this video so you guys can see that I am real,” she said. “Just know I care about you all and I love you very much, and we hope for nothing but the best because I do have two little ones to take care of.”
Later she posted a video saying she got her results and was “freaking out.”
“I just did not want to hear that today,” she said, breaking down crying. She asked people to pray for her and for her family. “I’ve never seen my husband cry until today,” she said. “I am way too young to go anywhere … I will fight until I beat it and I will not quit.”
However, Coyne testified that Barton’s biopsy was benign, and she was informed of that. Still she posted videos about her supposed treatments. “This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, asking for help,” she said in the last video, wearing a red baseball cap covering her hair.
Defense attorney John Rekowski asked Coyne why the Troy Police Department waited until just before Christmas in 2016 to post about Barton’s plea, which took place in October.
“Other than taking a victory lap two months after the plea, was there any law enforcement reason?” Rekowski asked.
Coyne said he had no control over the Facebook page, and did not know why the post was delayed.
Barton testified that she’s been treated for manic depression, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder since she was 14 years old, and that her son is autistic, requiring regular medical care and therapy. She said she and her children have been harassed in public, and the family moved from Troy to Belleville to escape it.
On cross-examination, prosecutor Katie Warren brought up Barton’s statements during presentence investigation, when she said “mental illness can be just as bad as cancer.” But Barton said she also said she wasn’t using her mental health diagnosis as an excuse.
“I messed up and I’m sorry,” she said. “Through hard work and dedication, I will pay back every cent that the court determines and then some.”
Through hard work and dedication, I will pay back every cent that the court determines and then some.
Warren argued that Barton knew what she was doing and only stopped when she was caught. “She preyed on people who knew someone who had cancer, on children who have had cancer,” she said. “She sued the public knowledge of the hell that cancer wreaks on patients and their families ... Inherently, most people are good, and the C-word is a terrifying word. They want to help the person or the family.”
Warren said the worst effect of cases like Barton’s is that it will cause people to question whether others are really fighting cancer, receiving chemotherapy, or in need of help.
Rekowski pointed out that this was Barton’s first felony, and while he acknowledged the circumstances were bad, the total amount Barton received was less than $1,300.
“The amount of this theft is not real large. What brings this case the attention is the nature and manner it was executed,” Rekowski said.
Rekowski criticized the Troy Police Department for posting about it on Facebook two months after Barton pleaded guilty. “For reasons that are inscrutable, Troy Police decided they needed to take a victory lap... and put her in the public stocks,” he said.
However, Napp said Barton “took the bait” by arguing in the comments on the police department’s post. Those comments have since been removed, but several people said that Barton was arguing in her own defense. Napp said those comments “didn’t help” convince her that Barton was sincerely contrite about her behavior.
Napp said the videos Barton posted while pretending to be undergoing cancer treatment “almost brought tears to (her) eyes,” almost making her believe Barton was suffering from cancer.
“She’s a wonderful actress,” Napp said. “I don’t know if she’s really contrite and frightened ... or if this is just another act she is putting on to avoid going to prison.”
I don’t know if she’s really contrite and frightened... or if this is just another act she is putting on to avoid going to prison.
Madison County Circuit Judge Kyle Napp
Napp sentenced Barton to 18 months in the Illinois Department of Corrections on one charge, to be followed by 30 months of probation on the other charge. She will be required to repay $1,290 to the people who donated to her, including First Baptist Church of Maryville, which provided rental assistance. If the victims cannot be found, Napp said, their funds would be donated to the American Cancer Society.
However, Warren said several of those who had donated to Barton have already asked that any restitution they are owed be donated to the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society.
“I feel justice has definitely been served for the citizens who gave monetary and other donations,” Warren said.
Barton will begin her sentence at the Madison County Jail on Aug. 14.
Also in 2014, Alissa Jackson of Belleville was arrested on charges that she had lied about a cancer diagnosis for two years, gathering more than $35,000 in donations. In 2016, Jackson was sentenced to three years in prison.