Cancer faker 'terribly damaged' by traumatic events and won't go to jail: judge

A Calgary woman who pleaded guilty to fraud after pretending to have breast cancer and to have lost everything in the Fort McMurray fires will not spend time behind bars if she respects the conditions of her probation.

Jennifer Halford pleaded guilty to 7 counts of fraud last year

Jennifer Halford leaves the courthouse after pleading guilty to fraud in November 2016. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

A Calgary woman who pleaded guilty to fraud after pretending to have breast cancer and to have lost everything in the Fort McMurray fires will not spend time behind bars if she respects the conditions of her probation.

When she pretended to have cancer, Jennifer Halford was so mentally ill, having suffered trauma after trauma, she'd developed an "overwhelming need to be cared for," according to a psychiatric report prepared ahead of her sentencing hearing.

Halford, 35, sobbed and writhed, shaking her head and leaning against the wall at times throughout the sentencing hearing in provincial court in Calgary on Monday as the details of her life were laid out before Judge Anne Brown. 

"She's plagued with feelings of worthlessness and personal failure," said prosecutor Jason Wuttunee.

Good Samaritans rallied to help Halford after she said she had breast cancer and also pretended to have lost everything in the Fort McMurray wildfires in 2016. She pleaded guilty on seven counts of fraud last November.

Traumatic events

The judge accepted a joint submission made by Wuttunee and defence lawyer Michelle Parhar on Monday. She imposed a suspended sentence, meaning if Halford respects the conditions of her two-year probation, she will not spend time behind bars. 

The judge noted several traumatic events "terribly damaged" Halford.

The elaborate fraud began in February 2016 when she told people she had breast cancer.

Three months later, she capitalized on the Fort McMurray wildfires and pretended to have lost everything, including her home.

She lied to two cancer survivors, the Kids Cancer Care organization, a mother whose daughter died and other generous Calgarians from February to May 2016.

Good Samaritans rallied to help her, donating food, gas cards, cash, diapers and child-care services.

The fact that Halford fostered 17 children — many of them high needs — over the years was presented as a mitigating factor to the judge.

Psychological and psychiatric reports found Halford was suffering a major depressive disorder — including anxiety and depression — when she committed the frauds.

Daughter's death 'extremely detrimental'

Though she'd suffered the loss of several family members, the death of her daughter Abby from mitochondrial disease in 2011 was the most impactful.

"This death — and the experience of dealing with her daughter's illness, deterioration and ultimate death — was extremely detrimental," said Wuttunee.

In dealing with her daughter's death, Halford gained 250 pounds.

After weight-loss surgery, she lost 200 pounds but suffered serious medical side effects including breast pain which required five surgeries between 2012 and 2016. She was scheduled to have a double mastectomy before charges were laid. 

Doctors say Halford believed she did have breast cancer and would ultimately be diagnosed with the disease, according to the reports. 

Greed not motive: doctors

Although the doctors say Halford's frauds were intentional, they believe her crimes were not for financial gain or greed, but rather an effort to get support and attention.

Wuttunee and defence lawyer Parhar made a joint submission for a suspended sentence plus two years of probation.

Parhar said her client has attended 19 counselling sessions and is remorseful. Halford will have to pay back about $1,300 to the victims and is banned from social media. 

Through statements and communication with the prosecution, some of the victims expressed their concern for Halford.

One said she felt "heartsick" for her former friend and would give to her again. Another told Wuttunee she felt Halford was the victim. 

"None of these victims harbour resentment," said Wuttunee.

'You are a compassionate person'

In handing down her sentence, Brown told Halford the ultimate goal of a sentence was to heal the offender and heal community which was harmed.

Brown offered Halford words of kindness and support. 

"You are a compassionate person, that's part of the problem in your mental health," said Brown.

"There are all sorts of people who break the criminal law and crucial to your case is the fact that your own mental illnesses [was] an enormous contributing factor to your behaviour."

Brown also acknowledged Halford was the victim of "the most horrible manifestations" of "mob behaviour" when she received "horrible and shocking" death threats from strangers. 

"What we strive for is a community that is compassionate," said Brown.