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Smithton native charged in Ohio with faking illness to raise money

| Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Melinda Taylor
Melinda Taylor

Melinda Taylor was well liked in two places — Smithton, where she grew up, and Chillicothe, Ohio, where the 35-year-old woman has lived for the past 12 years.

People in the two municipalities donated thousands of dollars, purportedly to help defray the costs of Taylor's mounting medical bills as she fought cancer and lupus.

However, according to an Ohio grand jury, Taylor's claims of illness were fake.

On Friday, the grand jury indicted Taylor on one fourth-degree felony count of grand theft. The count is defined as the theft of $7,500 to $150,000, according to Ohio law.

Taylor's fundraising page on — Mindy's Army — generated $13,234 before she was ordered to shut it down.

In addition, about $7,000 was raised through a spaghetti dinner Feb. 15 at the Smithton Volunteer Fire Department social hall.

On the fundraising page, Taylor's mother, Karen Primm, was listed as the organizer of Mindy's Army. Primm was elected to Smithton Borough Council in 2013. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday at her home.

Taylor was arrested and jailed over the weekend.

On Monday, Taylor was released on her own recognizance and a formal arraignment was continued until June 16. She cannot leave Ohio and cannot be involved in further fundraising efforts.

Taylor sought the continuance in order to apply for diversion.

Ohio's diversion program was created for first-time offenders accused of low-level, nonviolent felonies. A diversion board will screen her application. Comprising community members — including mental health and law enforcement professionals — the board will consider such factors as acknowledgement of guilt, whether she is likely to “reoffend” and ability to make restitution to all victims.

The program usually takes one year to complete and can involve community service and mental health counseling.

Ross County Prosecutor Matt Schmidt said the Ohio grand jury indictment does not include the event held in Smithton.

Schmidt said his office might reach out to Westmoreland County authorities, especially if Taylor does not make restitution to all alleged victims, including those in Pennsylvania.

A former athletic trainer, Taylor was well known in Chillicothe, in part because of the far-reaching fundraising efforts, Schmidt said.

Schmidt said he had previously met Taylor.

“In a community this size, the people know each other,” Schmidt said. “I know lot of people who were supportive of her.”

Taylor did have past medical problems.

In a Feb. 24 edition of the Chillicothe Gazette, Taylor said her health problems began at age 22 as she was completing graduate studies in athletic training at Ohio University.

After suffering a stroke, Taylor learned she had been born with a hole in her heart. The hole was surgically closed in 2006, but she suffered three subsequent strokes.

In the same article, Taylor claimed she developed lupus in 2012. She said that a year later, doctors discovered a mass in her small intestine and multiple masses in her liver.

In the Chillicothe Gazette story, Taylor said, “You see the best in people. We're always hearing about the worst in people, but there are some great people out there.”

After the story was published, local police received an anonymous tip that Taylor might be lying about her medical condition. Schmidt assigned a detective to check out Taylor's story.

“In investigating the case, it became clear there were some red flags,” Schmidt said. “We obtained her medical records.”

In March, the lead detective interviewed Taylor, who claimed she had cancer. The detective subsequently presented her with the medical records.

“She said, ‘OK, I admit I've never been diagnosed with cancer, but I have a large mass in my colon,”' Schmidt said. “‘Are you happy now? You're making a dying woman look bad.'”

Smithton Fire Chief Joel Ribniscky said he took his family to the fundraiser and stayed at the hall for about an hour as they ate. He never saw Taylor that night.

But Ribniscky said he knew Taylor growing up in Smithton.

“It's a shocker,” Ribniscky said. “Her parents are good folks. I didn't know her to be anything else but good.”

Michele Cathers, vice chairwoman and secretary/treasurer of the Municipal Authority of the Borough of Smithton, served as borough secretary for 17 years.

Cathers said she did not attend the spaghetti dinner, but had planned to send a check to Mindy's Army.

“Thank goodness I didn't,” Cathers said.

“I was going to because we're a small town and we help each other.”

Cathers said the indictment in Ohio was reverberating through the community.

“We're all appalled,” Cathers said. “The whole town is in an uproar. Everyone knows everyone here.”

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