This file photo provided by the Sanilac County Sheriff's Department shows Sara Ylen, a Michigan mother of two young boys, who said she was battling cancer just a few years after a man was convicted of her rape. The 38-year-old was found guilty of lying about a sexual assault at her Lexington home last year and tampering with evidence. She had used makeup to create what looked like bruises. (Sanilac County Sheriff's Department)
It’s almost hard to fathom the level of deceit perpetrated on so many people, and for so long, by one woman.
Over the course of 10 years, Sara Ylen, 38, of Lexington managed to concoct a false story of rape so foolproof an innocent man was convicted of the crime and spent nearly a decade in prison before he was released in 2012.
On top of that, Ylen then went on to convince an entire community that as a result of the rape, she had contracted stage three cancer: a sexually transmitted disease morphed into cervical cancer that then led to multiple myeloma.
Church auctions and spaghetti dinners raised $10,800 to help the “rape survivor” pay her everyday bills. Ylen wore scarves around her head and used a wheelchair. She accepted help with yard work; volunteers came to help bathe her.
It was all a hoax, a sham. The rape never happened. Ylen does not have cancer.
At long last, the truth has finally caught up with the woman now being derided as the Bernie Madoff of Michigan’s Thumb. In December, a St. Clair County jury found Ylen guilty for filing a false report of rape and tampering with evidence.
This week in Sanilac County, Ylen pleaded no contest to health care fraud. Court records revealed Ylen received more than $120,000 in insurance payments to cover treatment (which included regular morphine injections by a hospice nurse in Ylen’s home) for cancer she only had in her dreams. She’d forged documents with the University of Michigan Medical Center letterhead and doctored X-rays to fit her story.
Back in 2003, Ylen’s tale of a brutal rape convinced reporter Mike Connell and his editors at the Times Herald in Port Huron that “Sara’s Story” was worthy of a five-part series. Indeed, the series won national awards; it spawned a true crime TV episode and a Montel Williams interview. The epitome of hope for those who suffered in silence, Ylen was the darling of “Take Back the Night” rallies; she spoke at numerous rape survivor gatherings.
In 2012, the Michigan State Police started investigating Ylen’s rape claims (James Grissom, convicted of the rape, was not her only victim; she’d made several false accusations) and Ylen’s ruse started to unravel. Last month, Connell found himself writing the most difficult piece of his entire 44-year career as a journalist. “If this is a nest woven of lies twisted around lies, how did Ylen build it?” he wrote in the Times Herald. “How did she con me so thoroughly?”
Contacted via email this week, Connell seemed angry still. “She came up with a story that fooled not one but several veteran investigators, a seasoned prosecutor, a respected judge, a jury of the suspect’s peers who needed less than an hour to convict, a State Police post, an appeals court and, alas, me,” he wrote. “My personal belief, and I cannot prove it, is that Sara could never have pulled this off without inside help from someone in a position of authority. ”
Even with the lens of hindsight, it is still striking how brilliantly Ylen played everyone: Jim Ylen, her accountant husband (they have since divorced), applauded her tenacity when she won a conviction. A detective with 23 years experience said of the story back in 2003: “Everything she did was 100 percent exactly what a rape victim is expected to do. She did what you would expect from someone who is traumatized.”
In interviews, Ylen spared no detail, nothing was too gut-wrenching. In her journal, which she shared with Connell, she wrote of the trauma following the attack: “I just need to take a shower. It must be hot. Scalding hot. His filth, his touch. It has to go. … I start vomiting. Then I collapse in the shower, scrubbing until my skin is raw.”
Even her own children, two sons ages 2 and 4 at the time, were fair game. “My children have always been my priority. Their happiness and security means everything to me. … I have listened to my oldest son oldest son pray every night for ‘the bad man’ to leave his mommy alone. It breaks my heart to hear him worry about me like that.”
At publication time, Ylen was awaiting sentencing on the rape charges scheduled for this morning. Sentencing for the health-care fraud charges will take place in February. She will serve them concurrently,
Mike Connell is retired now. While he was happy to have coffee for an hour last week with a producer from ABC’s “20/20” newsmagazine to talk about the case, he says he has “absolutely no interest” in uncovering how “Ylen pulled off such an elaborate con without inside help.” Then he added: “I suspect there are others who may take up the challenge.”