How Oprah was duped by bogus cancer victim

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The Independent US

When Charlene Zimmerman revealed that she was dying from liver cancer and expected the next Christmas to be her last, no effort was spared by the community of Waukee to ease her final months. Friends and neighbours in the small town in America's Midwest rallied round to buy a tree and toys for her children as her treatment took its toll, leaving her bald and bed-ridden.

Indeed, such was the outpouring of sympathy for the bespectacled 34-year-old that she was invited to tell her story on Oprah, the ultimate accolade on America's confessional television circuit.

To save her from the embarrassment of her lack of hair, the show's host and grande dame of prime-time populism, Oprah Winfrey, lent Zimmerman an expensive wig that had belonged to Madonna.

Winfrey also sent her guest home to Iowa with a video camera to record some cherished goodbyes for her family. Millions were touched by the plight of the "apple pie mom" with six months to live.

But, as the support fund raced to more than $10,000 (£6,000), there was one thing wrong with this domestic tragedy – the cancer victim did not have cancer. Instead, her lawyers argued, she was suffering from a different type of ailment, a psychological disorder akin to Munchausen's syndrome under which sufferers create an elaborate facsimile of illness.

The hair loss was simply the work of a pair of clippers and the biopsy scars were the result of wounds self-inflicted by Zimmerman in her meticulous attempt to create the appearance of a terminally ill woman.

Not only had she duped the people of Waukee, a sleepy satellite of the Iowa state capital, Des Moines, with a population of 2,512, but also her husband, Chuck, and each of her three children.

Chuck said: "I believed what she was telling me. I had no reason to doubt her."

Zimmerman revealed this week that her fantasy had been sparked by a medical check-up soon after the family moved to Waukee. She told ABC Television: "My liver enzymes were four times higher than normal. I assumed I must have cancer if this is going on. And there's been no explanation. It has to be something terrible like that."

She added: "It upsets me that I put my family, that I put my friends, that I put this town through this."

The Iowa state police became involved early in 2000, shortly after a fire gutted the family home – leading to another fund-raising spree. Her neighbours realised that far from fading away, Zimmerman was gaining weight and her hair had grown back.

Larry Phillips, chief of Waukee police, called the clinic where she had claimed to be receiving treatment and found it was not chemotherapy.

He said: "Everybody had been rallying around. Even the little kids were taking pennies out of their banks and donating money.

"When I confronted her, she was devastated, her head was bowed. She acted maybe as if a large weight was taken off her shoulders."

As sympathy switched to disbelief on the streets of Waukee, Zimmerman was convicted of theft on the ground of diminished responsibility. She was ordered to send a letter of apology to a local newspaper.

She was also ordered to pay back $1,400 (£840) but spared jail by being put on probation for two years. Zimmerman, who has since left the state, is on medication and undergoing therapy.

Sufferers of factitious disorder, the syndrome with which Zimmerman has been diagnosed, can be convincing victims of their chosen illness and are often motivated by attention and money, according to psychiatrists.

But her lawyer, Peter Berger, said she had been driven to make the claims by a depression caused by being abused by her father.

Mr Berger said: "What happened to Charlene was the result of psychological problems. She truly believed she had cancer and didn't intend to profit from it."

If the opinion of Waukee's mayor, Donald Bailey, is anything to go by, it is an explanation that those who once dipped their hands into their pockets have been happy to accept.

He said: "I've heard of no hard feelings. If this had to happen to get that family back on track, and Charlene personally, I'm happy for them."

But for Zimmerman, who recorded farewell messages to her children and was pictured attached to intravenous drips, the saga seems to have been about one person only.

She said: "I never meant to hurt anyone. The only one I wanted to hurt was myself."