WHEN young mum Amanda Riley appealed for financial support to help pay for life-saving treatment, her friends and community showered her with cash.
But all was not what it seemed…
THERE wasn’t a dry eye in the house as Amanda Riley left the stage of the packed auditorium.
It was the summer of 2014 in the vast Community Family Church in San Jose, California, where the local mum of two – a petite 30 year old with seemingly recently regrown hair covered by a beanie – had talked about her two-year battle with stage-four cancer.
Accompanied by dry ice, dramatic lighting and uplifting music, Amanda recounted how the disease had spread around her body – but, unbelievably, she’d gone into remission at one point and even fallen pregnant with a “miracle” child.
The £80,000 donated by well-wishers was keeping her alive, she said, allowing her to continue to get life-saving treatment.
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At the end, the crowd filed past, throwing money at her feet.
But the whole story was a lie. Amanda didn’t have cancer.
She made it up in an elaborate scam that spanned more than a decade.
Amanda’s then-friend, Lindsey Wilder, 30, was in the audience at the church that day.
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“It was a powerful moment,” she says.
“The atmosphere was tangible. There was an almost-angelic presence to Amanda – she was a rock star in our church community.
We all thought she was so brave and I was awestruck when I first met her.”
“Like countless people across America, Lindsey, a hotel worker from California, had been following Amanda’s blog, Lymphoma Can Suck It, on which she’d given regular, detailed updates about her cancer journey since 2012.
She posted photographs of herself in hospital hooked up to IV lines and oxygen machines.
There was also a link where donors could contribute towards medical costs, which varied between £3,000 and £10,000 a month.
The blog helped spread the word about her struggle, and people held fund-raising events, such as a Facebook challenge, raffles and an eBay auction of items, which included an electric guitar signed by LeAnn Rimes.
Supporters were sent #TeamAmanda bracelets and fridge magnets.
She became so well-known that she was used in fund-raising material and events by the American Cancer Society and Lymphoma Society.
Yet in May last year, Amanda, now 38, was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to wire fraud (the act of obtaining money electronically by deception).
As well as £80,000 in online donations, she also received cash and gifts estimated to have taken her haul to more than £152,000.
The huge con may never have been uncovered, had it not been for the work of Los-Angeles-based investigative producer Nancy Moscatiello, who received an anonymous tip in 2015.
Now, the remarkable story has sparked huge interest around the world, thanks to British broadcaster Charlie Webster, 40, whose hit podcast Scamanda spent several weeks at the top of the Apple Podcast charts this year.
“I found it fascinating,” says Charlie.
“Amanda is charming and young – why would she do it? The psychology and human behaviour is what interested me about the story.”
Working together, Nancy and Charlie traced Amanda’s lies back to at least 2010 and a bitter legal battle that she and husband Cory waged against his ex-wife Aletta for custody of their daughter Jessa, then 13.
Amanda met Cory and Aletta when she was a 17-year-old college student and taught cheerleading to Jessa’s older half-sister Jaymie, who is Aletta’s daughter from a previous relationship.
Amanda’s friendship with Jaymie brought her close to the whole family.
After Cory and Aletta divorced in 2007, Amanda began a relationship with Cory, who is 12 years her senior, and they married in 2011.
By then, she was already telling friends she’d been diagnosed with cancer.
Cory and Amanda launched their custody battle for Jessa soon after they married, and eventually managed to convince the court into handing over full custody, falsely claiming that Aletta was a “bad parent”.
In June 2012, Amanda’s blog first appeared.
In the initial post she explained she’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune system, after the birth of her son Carter, earlier that year.
In spring 2013, she announced she was in remission, but just a few months later posted that the cancer had returned “with a vengeance” and at the same time she was pregnant again with a “miracle baby”, Connor, now nine.
She posted photographs of herself in various hospitals undergoing procedures and even shaved her head to pre-empt the hairloss her chemo was going to cause.
By September 2013, the blog was linked to a website where people could donate.
In November, Cory and Amanda filed for bankruptcy, claiming the expenses of her treatment had ruined them.
Aletta was ordered to pay them child support.
Amanda was a regular at the Family Community Church, which attracted thousands of worshippers every week.
She turned to the pastor for help and he arranged for several “dollar offerings”, in which she was given large sums of money.
That’s where Lindsey met her. “One day, Amanda collapsed and wet herself before an ambulance took her away,” she recalls.
“Looking back, I can see it was an act. She was so devoted to the lie that she peed herself in a church and fooled paramedics.”
The two became friends and she was so taken in by Amanda’s story, Lindsey started giving blood to help other lymphoma patients, donating so much one year that she was told she had maxed out.
In the first three years of her blog, Amanda wrote that she went into remission and then beat cancer three times.
But in June 2015, an anonymous source sent Nancy a message saying a young woman in California was conning the congregation at a church.
Nancy never discovered the identity of the source – but it immediately piqued her interest.
“There were things in the blog that didn’t seem right,” Nancy explains.
“My sister had stage-four lung cancer years before and a friend of mine helped her by researching clinical trials.
“She looked at the blog and pointed me to inconsistencies, like treatments that were not available at home or could only be administered by a medically trained person – and medicines that could only be kept in a laboratory fridge.”
Nancy read back through the last three years of the blog and researched each claim.
She soon realised there were many red flags.
She contacted Cory’s ex-wife Aletta, who told her about the lies the couple were claiming about her in court.
Nancy contacted the hospitals Amanda claimed she was being treated at and spoke to them about the procedures.
Although patient confidentiality meant they wouldn’t give out specifics, they did confirm details Amanda wrote in her blog did not ring true.
By September 2015, Nancy had enough evidence to go to San Jose Police and the Internal Revenue Service.
Amanda found out about the investigation and told a custody hearing that Aletta was using Nancy to create a smear campaign against her.
In February 2016, police confirmed an official investigation was underway.
In September, they raided Amanda’s house, but she claimed it was all orchestrated by Aletta.
Cops eventually managed to get confirmation that Amanda was not a patient at one of the clinics she said she was being treated at.
However, they struggled to find a reliable route to prosecution, as lying in itself is not illegal.
Meanwhile, Amanda went on the offensive and issued a civil harassment claim against Nancy, requesting a restraining order in an attempt to silence her.
After six months, a judge refused Amanda’s request.
As there was no paper trail to show she spent cash donations on herself, investigators concentrated on obtaining evidence that money donated online was transferred to her personal accounts and spent on living expenses and travel, rather than treatment.
By July 2020, they had the proof they needed.
Amanda was charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of falsifying information in court documents presented at the earlier bankruptcy hearing.
She initially pleaded not guilty, but changed her plea a year later, after which the second charge was dropped.
Although Cory had previously told the custody court that he’d attended all of Amanda’s chemo treatments, he has faced no charges.
Amanda’s blog also disappeared from the internet.
The Scamanda podcast reveals Amanda habitually walked into hospitals or faked illness and injury before attending A&E departments where she would take the photos she used on her blog.
She also bought medical equipment, such as IV lines and oxygen masks to use as props.
Charlie attended the sentencing last year and has been in contact with Amanda since. “I tried not to be judgemental.
“I had to stay in the middle to get the breadth of the story,” she explains.
“Even in the conversations and messages I’ve had with her, it’s hard not to get drawn in.
“She makes you feel special. She isn’t arrogant, she is engaged, she wants to know about you.
“She was believed because people want to believe in miracles.”
At her sentencing, Amanda made a long, self-pitying statement in which she apologised to her victims and her family.
Her lawyers argued she wasn’t necessarily a bad person, just someone who had created a lie that she eventually became trapped in.
Since the podcast’s release, several people who knew her have said Amanda exhibited attention-seeking behaviour through illness from a young age.
Redacted court documents suggest some kind of unknown prior trauma may have been a factor.
Charlie says: “I don’t think it was about the money, I think it was about attention and the way that made her feel.
“She was more than just a con artist. If you look at how we live now on social media, there are elements of that behaviour there, in the craving for validation and of being something more.”
Nancy, however, is less forgiving. “She was manipulative. I don’t cut her any slack.
“What she did to Jessa and Aletta and her own kids, by also convincing them she was dying, and then the shame of the court case, was horrific,” she says.
Meanwhile, Lindsey believes prison is unlikely to change her former friend, and she has not recovered from the scam.
“I mostly feel disgusted by her behaviour and the way she played with people’s emotions,” she says.
“When I donated blood for cancer victims, I told everyone who I was donating for.
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“I wouldn’t have changed doing it, because it helped people, but it’s a metaphor for what she did: Amanda literally drained people’s blood.”
- Scamanda is available on all podcast providers now.
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