LEXINGTON, Mich. (AP) — Carol Connell remembers well the gift she gave Sara Ylen, a friend seemingly forced to bear too much misery. Ylen, a Michigan mother of two young boys, said she was battling cancer just a few years after a man was convicted of her rape.
"It was a little box, a very ornate box, to hold a prayer. She needed God to look over her," Connell said, recalling the 2008 lunch when she gave Ylen the jewelry. "Sara was visibly touched."
Connell now can't help but wonder whether Ylen was showing gratitude or simply perpetuating years of jaw-dropping deceit.
Ylen's community, which had come to admire her as the subject of a newspaper's award-winning 2003 series about surviving a rape, rallied when her cancer diagnosis became public. Churches sold Super Bowl sub sandwiches and auction items to raise money. Friends cut her grass, bathed her at her modest home and provided hot meals. An insurance company paid nearly $100,000 for hospice care.
Now the 38-year-old is charged with fraud, false pretenses and using a computer to commit a crime after state police found no doctor who diagnosed cancer. The charges come as those who regularly helped Ylen reel from the news that the man who spent nearly 10 years in prison for her rape was released last year, after newly discovered evidence cast doubt on whether she'd ever been attacked.
"The fact that she's lived this long is a miracle. But maybe it wasn't a miracle after all. ... I'm just baffled. Is she the biggest con artist in the state of Michigan or the victim?" Connell said.
The fraud case isn't Ylen's only concern. In a neighboring county, she is charged with making a false report of rape just last year, even using makeup to create bruises.
Ylen (pronounced WHY'-len) and her attorney, Dave Heyboer, have not returned phone messages seeking comment. The Associated Press went to a Lexington address listed in court documents, but she no longer lives there.
The two cases against Ylen come years after she first emerged in the public eye in the Port Huron area, 60 miles northeast of Detroit.
In 2002, Ylen told police she had been raped in broad daylight in a Meijer store parking lot more than a year earlier.
There was no surveillance video, physical evidence or witnesses. James Grissom, an off-duty Meijer employee with a past sex-related conviction, was charged after Ylen said her attacker, like Grissom, had a skull tattoo. He was found guilty in 2003 and sentenced to at least 15 years in prison, an enhanced punishment because Ylen said her attacker gave her a sexually transmitted disease.
Next, Ylen told her story to the Port Huron Times Herald. She said she wanted people to see her as a "victor," not a "victim." Readers inspired by "Sara's Story," as the series was titled, started a fund to send her to community college.
But it didn't take long for Ylen's story to start unraveling. Authorities learned she claimed to have been kidnapped and raped while visiting her parents in Bakersfield, Calif., just months after the alleged parking lot attack back in Michigan. No charges were filed.
"My daughter likes to have a lot of attention," her father, Dale Hill, told Bakersfield officers in a 2001 police report that wasn't uncovered until after Grissom's trial. Hill told the AP this week that he hasn't spoken to his daughter in years and didn't know anything about her recent claims.
After years of appeals, a judge in 2012 ruled that the police report could have changed the outcome of Grissom's trial and ordered a new one, saying Ylen appeared to have "concocted incredible stories" in California.
Prosecutors dropped the case without a second trial, and Grissom was freed in November.
As Grissom's appeals were moving through the courts, Ylen was telling people she had developed cancer from a disease transmitted during the assault. She was back in the newspaper, supported by friends, including a state police sergeant, who believed she was on the verge of death in 2009.
"Job of the Old Testament had nothing on Sara Ylen," wrote Times Herald columnist Mike Connell, who is married to Carol Connell, referring to a pious man who repeatedly suffered misfortune.
Just about a year ago, Ylen was in a wheelchair at a Croswell Wesleyan Church auction and spaghetti dinner that raised $10,800.
"I thought I was doing something good for someone who had cancer. It's like a bad 'Lifetime' movie," said event organizer Sue Birtles. "I've heard that some people want their money back. ... I'm working on forgiveness."
Mercy Hospice, which visited Ylen at her home, declined to comment on her care but said in a statement that any terminal illness typically "must be certified" by a patient's doctor before services are provided.
Ylen's ex-husband, Jim, declined to comment on the criminal charges against his former wife, but divorce records indicate he had long doubted her tales of woe. The couple were married in 1993, separated in 2007 and divorced in 2011.
The marriage "broke down due to the wife's complex lies and deceit involving fictitious rapes, kidnappings, pregnancies and illnesses — all attempts to control others by complaining of physical symptoms," Jim Ylen's attorney, Aaron Cassell, said in a court filing.
Sara Ylen told her husband the name of her cancer doctor, but he later learned there was no physician by that name in Michigan, Cassell said. And she wouldn't let him join her at medical appointments, even after driving hundreds of miles to Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Ill. The clinic says Sara Ylen never was a patient there, according to records reviewed by the AP.
Psychologist Daniel Kachman evaluated Ylen as part of the divorce case and told the judge: "Often feeling dependent and dejected and fearful of rebuff, she may either withdraw from painful social relationships or decide to adapt the role of martyr."
Mike Connell, the newspaper columnist, said he regrets not treating his own doubts more seriously.
"Sara is innocent until proven guilty, but if she did pull off an elaborate con, consider what genius it required," he said in an email. "She has a brilliant mind. I recognized that straightaway."
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