An arraignment for a Belleville woman accused of fraud for faking terminal ovarian cancer was attended by family members who gathered to show support and friends-turned-foe who felt wronged by her alleged actions.
Alissa A. Jackson, 31, was charged Wednesday with two counts of felony theft by deception of more than $500 but less than $10,000.
Belleville police said she accepted money from fundraisers, including an event in which Pizza Hut donated 20 percent of the day's sales, to help pay non-existent medical bills and to support her family.
The charges also include deceiving Amanda Tabor, who bought and sold T-shirts to benefit Jackson and the fundraising group, "Alissa's Army."
Jackson pleaded not guilty at a Wednesday afternoon arraignment before St. Clair County Chief Judge John Baricevic.
When Baricevic asked her whether she had an attorney, Jackson said: "Um, I don't know. I haven't talked to my husband."
Baricevic then asked Jackson whether she will hire an attorney and she said yes.
Jackson appeared in an orange jail jumpsuit and black sandals.
As Jackson was waiting to be taken to the St. Clair County Jail, a woman asked her: "Look at me. Tell me why, Alissa. It's me, Amanda. Why did you do this to me? Why?"
Another woman added, "No, why did you do it to your children?"
Jackson's husband, Brandon Jackson, pleaded for Alissa to look at him. Alissa Jackson kept her face covered with her hands, wiping at her eyes, as she faced him. Her gaze met his once.
Her mother-in-law, Rosalind Jackson, shouted words of encouragement.
"We love you, baby," Rosalind Jackson said. "We got you. You hear me? ... Don't worry about them. It's not for them to judge you. It's in God's hands."
Brandon and Rosalind Jackson said after the arraignment they believe that Alissa Jackson is ill. They want friends and strangers not to jump to conclusions and attack their family before the truth is sorted out.
"I believe she's sick," Brandon Jackson said. "I believe my wife. All this would hurt our kids and she wouldn't do that. She loves them."
Rosalind Jackson said she and Brandon Jackson saw firsthand the effects of cancer on Alissa Jackson.
"Hair loss, seizures, blood in her (urine)," Rosalind Jackson said. "She was collapsing on the floor. How do you fake something like that?"
Brandon Jackson said he believes those accusing his wife of fraud have their own motives but he declined to elaborate.
The courtroom Wednesday was filled with those who rallied around Jackson when they thought she had stage four ovarian cancer. Now many believe she cheated supporters out of about $35,000 in cash and in-kind donations.
Jackson's friends said she capitalized on support garnered by another Belleville woman, Christine Allsup, who died Jan. 18 after being diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in November 2009.
The story of Allsup and her twin, Pat Allsup, inspired many in the community to continue to promote "Team Chris" as a way to remember Chris Allsup and help others dealing with cancer.
For two years, including Chris Allsup's last months, the sisters helped Jackson raise money for medical bills and her family.
Belleville Police Department Detective Sgt. Mark Heffernan said the fundraising effort for Jackson ramped up in the fall of 2013.
When asked if there were other suspects in the case, more charges are expected or incidents before 2013, Heffernan said the case remains open and investigators are interested in speaking to anyone with information related to Jackson.
Police interviewed Jackson on Tuesday and presented their case to the St. Clair County State's Attorney's Office.
Jackson was being held Wednesday in the St. Clair County Jail. Her bond was set at $100,000.
Heffernan said Jackson's "scam" reached international proportions because people worldwide gave donations to help her.
"Jackson preyed on the good-hearted nature of the citizens of this community, and that is not something that this agency takes lightly," Heffernan said. "The emotional impact of what Jackson has done cannot be measured."
Belleville detectives began to investigate after people who helped organize fundraisers for cancer victims reported their suspicions about Jackson, Heffernan said.
"These individuals should be commended for bringing a difficult situation forward," Heffernan said.
Jen Huelsmann, one of Jackson's friends, said she realized something was wrong when Jackson wrote on Facebook that she was in the emergency room but Huelsmann could not locate her at any area hospitals.
"That was the turning point," Huelsmann said. "We were at the hospital she said she was at and they physically went back to the emergency room to try to find her and she was not there."
Huelsmann and others then decided to hire private investigators to see what was going on with Jackson.
Hurst Investigation Services Inc. based in O'Fallon ended up working the case pro bono, collecting evidence, turning the information they gathered over to police and urging Huelsmann to go to police.
Four private investigators worked the case, doing surveillance on Jackson and tracking her Facebook posts. They found, for instance, that Jackson was actually at Target when she said she was at chemotherapy treatment.
"The past few months have been so tough," Huelsmann said. "If not for (Hurst investigators) offering their support, we would have never brought Alissa to justice."
Huelsmann said once news of Jackson's arrest spread, people have accused her of helping Jackson commit fraud.
"For two months we couldn't say anything because we didn't want to jeopardize anything, the police investigation," Huelsmann said. "The police told us to act as if we didn't know anything. Her children believed their mother was dying even though she does not have cancer. She is not ill. She has never received chemo."
Huelsmann said she was the contact person for Jackson's fundraisers and was involved with almost every fundraiser planned for her.
Huelsmann said the situation has been especially heartbreaking for her because she was close to Jackson. Huelsmann's kids are good friends with Jackson's kids.
"We ask that everyone please, for the sake of the people involved, consider the feelings of Alissa's children and understand that people closest to her made the best choices we could based on the information that we had," Huelsmann said.
Huelsmann wants people to remember that the biggest victims in this situation are Jackson's children and to respect the privacy of the family. She also hopes that this situation does not stop people from donating to help cancer victims.
Belle Valley School District 119 Superintendent Louis Obernuefemann said the school organized a spaghetti supper fundraiser for Jackson and other families in need earlier this year.
"I've been instructed not to say anything about the details," said Obernuefemann, who was contacted by Belleville police during their investigation. "We did it to benefit our children, and that primary directive has not changed. We are still concerned about the children."
Some of Jackson's children attend Belle Valley School in Belleville.
Huelsmann shared her suspicions with an Ohio woman who was planning on traveling to the metro-east to meet Jackson after months of donating to Jackson's cause.
"I had planned a lunch date with Alissa," Dana McQuade said. "I was going to bring my 3-year-old son to meet this woman who was an inspiration, who I had been helping and thought it would be so great, to meet this lady who thankfully was still alive."
McQuade, who has family in the St. Louis area, said she learned of Jackson's plight on the Team Chris page on Facebook.
"I went to her page and read her story and it completely broke my heart," McQuade said. "I started sending household supplies to her through Amazon. ... Anything that would make her life easier... paper towels."
McQuade said she was drawn to Jackson's story because Jackson also has mixed race children. Jackson is white and her husband, Brandon, is black.
Jackson's Facebook page also tells a story of how Jackson was a drug addict who turned her life around, McQuade said.
McQuade said Jackson called her on Sunday and confessed.
"It would have been the easiest thing in the world for her to produce a medical record with a doctor's diagnosis that she has stage four ovarian cancer," McQuade said. "But she couldn't. She was bawling on the phone. She was saying, 'I didn't mean to hurt anybody. I don't want to go to jail. My husband is going to leave me.' And I told her, 'You need to do the right thing and turn yourself in.'"