When graduate student Victoria Ann Marut said she had terminal cancer, her colleagues and professors in the education program at Truman State University rallied around her.
Marut, 22, of St. Peters, accepted their sympathy. Teachers at Kirksville Primary School, where she was doing field work this fall, donated gift cards and meals as well as hats and a wig to cover her bald head. Others planned a fundraiser to help with her expenses.
But the grade school’s principal, Tricia Reger, got suspicious this month. Some of the details of Marut’s story didn’t add up, she said. Marut said she had been missing work because of her illness, so Reger contacted Marut’s professors.
At Reger’s urging, Truman professor Peter Kelly required Marut to get a note from her doctor to see whether she was physically able to complete her work. When a legitimate-looking note arrived a short time later from Dr. Michael Trendle on a letterhead from the Boone Hospital Center, Reger still didn’t buy it.
“It was produced within an hour at the end of the day,” Reger said. “Knowing how busy doctors are, that just didn’t make sense to me.”
Reger thought Kelly should check with the doctor to verify the information, and when Kelly did, he found out Marut’s story wasn’t true.
According to Trendle, Marut had never been a patient at Missouri Cancer Associates or Boone Hospital Center, both in Columbia, Mo., or at the George Rea Cancer Center in Kirksville.
In a letter to Kelly, Trendle said that he could “unequivocally confirm that this letter is a forgery,” according to police.
The Adair County prosecutor charged Marut with felony forgery on Nov. 14. Truman Police Chief Thomas Johnson said Thursday that the inquiry is continuing, and Marut could be charged with stealing by deception for accepting gifts.
Johnson said that when he questioned Marut about the letter, she admitted to making it on her computer. She said she wasn’t terminal, nor did she have a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. But she had been shaving her head in an effort to make others think she did, Johnson said.
“The story she’s giving is that she wanted attention from her mother, but I think you can probably put a period after she wanted attention,” he said.
Johnson, a cancer survivor himself, described the case as one of the strangest ones he has worked in 28 years in law enforcement.
Kelly said Marut was studying to be a special education teacher, and he had known her for about 18 months. Before she told him in June about her cancer diagnosis, she had been a good student.
“She had not asked for special consideration to complete her assignments, and she was meeting her obligations to that point,” he said.
Marut’s attorney, Ben Gray, declined to comment about details of the case or Marut’s health, but he said he hopes people will keep an open mind.
“The allegation sounds pretty bad, and people who have experienced an illness like cancer in their family tend not to be real sympathetic,” he said. “In this case I just hope people won’t be judgmental because there’s a lot of things going on that people aren’t going to probably know about.”
Gray said that Marut is currently not taking classes at the university and is free on bail, with one of the conditions being that she live with her sister in St. Peters. A preliminary hearing is set for next month.
Marut had been working on a master’s degree, but now her future at Truman is uncertain, Kelly said. An internal investigation is under way.
Kelly said he regrets not checking out Marut’s story earlier, but he said he wasn’t familiar enough with cancer diagnosis and treatment to realize it was a hoax. He’s worried about the impact her actions will have on the Truman community as well as the staff at Kirksville Primary School.
“People in the building were remarkably generous in their support and the way they wanted to take care of her,” he said. “They were taken in by her story, and I know that was a difficult thing.”