MARION, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio sheriff's deputy who committed suicide last week pretended for years that he had cancer while scamming his family and colleagues out of thousands of dollars in charitable donations to pay for phony medical bills, authorities said Wednesday.
Marion County Deputy Sheriff Joe Russell, 39, shot himself in his home on Sept. 30. An autopsy showed that he was healthy and did not have cancer.
"This was a fraud. This was a con," Sheriff Tim Bailey, who learned of the autopsy results on Tuesday, said at a news conference outlining details of the investigation.
Russell had fabricated notes from doctors to help pass off a story about how he was fighting cancer in his lungs, brain and testicles, Bailey said. Investigators also believe Russell shaved his eyebrows and head, used tanning beds to make himself appear red from cancer treatments and once told others he was receiving treatments at John Hopkins hospital in Baltimore when he really was staying with a friend.
"His concern was only for himself, not his wife, not his young daughter, not his friends," Bailey said following the news conference. "He conned his very close personal friends. He ran this ruse through the community. This is sick."
Co-workers had donated more than 75 days in unused sick leave and vacation time to Russell so he could get treatment. He also received about $20,000 from a Fraternal Order of Police fundraiser in 2007.
Bailey said he had been suspicious about his constantly sick deputy, who used about 57 days of sick time over the past five years, but medical privacy laws prevented him from delving into the matter.
Investigators are looking into whether Russell used his county sick pay under fraudulent conditions, and his county and sheriff's association insurance policies as well as pay due for unused vacation and sick time and holidays have been frozen, Bailey said.
"If there is money due back to the county, to the taxpayer, we're going to try to recover that," he said.
Russell became a full-time deputy in September 2004, performed well on the job and was liked by co-workers and others in the county building where he worked, Bailey said. He began the cancer scam around late 2005, the sheriff said.
Russell lived with his wife and two daughters in Delaware, about 20 miles north of Columbus. His wife told investigators she also believed her husband had cancer and didn't know about the con until last week, Bailey said.