Police charge victim who never was
Hoaxed: Canadians pay pounds 60,000 after mother's tragic TV cancer appeal
Saturday 13 April 1996
Red-faced Toronto police have put a surprise ending to a tale that touched a compassionate chord across Canada. Admitting they had been too quick to seek positive press coverage about a single mother with terminal cancer who had had all her money stolen by a purse-snatcher, they have charged the woman with public mischief.
It turns out that 27-year-old Donna Mercier does not have cancer, nor a seven-year-old son; but she does have a rich imagination, a history of making false accusations, and the police do not now believe she had her purse stolen, either. Hence the charge of public mischief for making a false claim.
Before the saga ended, however, more than $100,000 (pounds 60,000) in donations had poured in, including several hundred dollars from soft-hearted policemen involved in the initial investigation - an investigation the police now concede did not proceed far enough before the force decided to publicise the woman's plight.
The story began on 3 April, when the woman reported her purse had been stolen by a mugger. In addition to her money, she said the purse contained all of her identification including her health card, pain-killers for the cancer and a bus ticket to send her seven-year-old son to her nearest relatives in Winnipeg, 1,500 miles away, when she died.
After the police put out an appeal for help the next day, the local tabloid newspaper and radio stations began pushing the story, followed eventually by the national media.
The response was so overwhelming that the police arranged this week for the woman to do a televised "thank you" in which she said she wished all of the kind people "could be inside my heart, to see how grateful I am".
The woman was interviewed behind a semi-transparent screen to protect her identity, because the police said that she feared an abusive boyfriend.
The screen was transparent enough, however, that many of her neighbours and acquaintances (including a former male friend who had been falsely accused by her of rape) recognised her and blew the whistle.
Police decided to check out her medical and other claims and the whole story came unstuck. One Toronto officer subsequently admitted he had been sceptical from the start. "It was just too Hollywood," he said.
The big question remaining is what to do with the $100,000 that is sitting untouched in a special bank account.
An official said the police department would seek a "worthwhile, fully accountable" destination for the donations from the generous public.
And the local police chief, David Boothby, said the outpouring of generosity showed Toronto was still a "real, caring city".
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