A Sweetwater woman claimed she had pancreatic cancer and only a few weeks left to live.
As she and her family pleaded for prayers and begged for help, the small community of roughly 5,600 responded.
They held a chili benefit at a nearby church, created a Facebook prayer group, sold T-shirts, conducted private fundraisers, launched a GoFundMe campaign, and even treated her to a day at the local salon.
All this happened late last year and into January.
But a 10News investigation found that 20-year-old Ashley Lively only pretended to have cancer and used the money to take trips to the beach and buy a new car. And now authorities in several counties are expected to press charges.
"She's a young girl who made a bad mistake," said Monroe County detective Mack Williams. "I have to find out where all the money came from. She admitted to me that she lied about it."
Williams said he expects officials to bring the case to a grand jury and charges could follow.
He also said that law enforcement in Loudon County is looking into the matter, since some of the money raised for Lively came from there.
"There may be even more counties involved as well," he said.
In addition, GoFundMe, a crowd sourcing website that allows groups to raise money for causes, shut down an account dedicated to Lively after officials with the company suspected fraud.
"People who didn't have money to give gave to her," said Brittany Morrow, who held a private event for Lively and 100 of her family and friends at Steekee Elementary School in Loudon. “I initially gave her the benefit of the doubt but then I stopped facilitating donations for her.”
At this point, no one is quite sure how much money Lively has received, but Morrow and one of Lively's family members say it's at least $10,000, possibly much more.
Lively did not return phone calls and texts seeking comment.
Her aunt, however, spoke to WBIR 10News about the issue.
Margaret Shubert said the family had no idea that her niece had made up the story.
“We got a text yesterday at 3 p.m. from Ashley that the cancer was fake and that she only did it for attention,” Shubert said. “She told us that she had the names of all the people who donated and would pay them back. We’re just as shocked as everyone else. We never questioned it. She’s our niece – we never questioned her. We’re just all torn apart over this.”
FIGHT AGAINST CANCER
Lively’s former supporters told WBIR 10News that she and family members began posting Facebook status updates in December, saying she had Stage IV pancreatic cancer that had spread to her liver, stomach lining and lungs.
“So with that being said, my life on earth has been cut down from 6 months to 2 weeks,” Ashley posted on Facebook. “But I know in my heart the good Lord will take me whenever he’s ready . . . . But if y'all could say a prayer for me, Dalton, Our family & friends thatd (sic) be greatly appreciated.”
In late December, her husband, Dalton, also posted a message on his Facebook account. It read: “Everyone please help us out.”
Below his note was a link to a GoFundMe account to raise money. It was set up by his mom and sought to “support Ashleys (sic) Fight Against Cancer!”
The community pitched in.
Residents held two key events in late January that garnered coverage from the local media.
On Jan. 24, the Reed Springs Baptist Church in Philadelphia held a chili benefit to support her.
Those who attended paid $5 for a bowl of chili, dessert and a drink. The event also included a silent auction and eventually raised almost $7,000.
A week later, Carrie Tate, the owner of Hair Therapy in Athens, treated Ashley, her mother and her grandmother to facials, pedicures, manicures and haircuts. The day-long treatment for the trio was worth a combined $350.
In March, Ashley claimed on her Facebook page that “after 14 very long weeks of chemo I am so, so, so happy to say my scan came back clear!!”
PRAYERS FOR ASHLEY: SOCIAL MEDIA COMMUNITY TURNS
Meanwhile, another Facebook account – “Prayers for Ashley Lively” – picked up more than 800 followers, many throughout the country who wished her well.
“Praying for you from South Georgia!” one person posted. “I've been following your story and I am just in awe at our GOD!!!”
“You’re always on my mind,” said another post.
The messages in recent days, however, are no longer supportive.
“Better start praying for her well being,” one person wrote. “Karma is coming. Shame on her!!!!!!!!”
“Omg my mother and my father both died from cancer that's so wrong of her to do this,” she stated on the Facebook site.
Officials at another social media site – GoFundMe – also grew concerned.
Some $1,425 was raised to the campaign set up in Ashley Lively’s name.
But, GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne said the company shut down the account.
"There are unfortunate instances where people create campaigns with the intention to take advantage of others’ generosity,” he told WBIR. “In the rare cases where fraud occurs, GoFundMe takes swift action to resolve the issue. In this case, a fraud accusation was made and the campaign organizer didn't provide the appropriate information to resolve the issue. Therefore, funds have been placed on hold and if our team cannot work to resolve this issue with the campaign organizer directly, funds will be refunded to the donors."
Earlier this month, Sweetwater resident Anita Dawson filed a report with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, in reference to a possible fraud.
Dawson said she donated money to Ashley’s cause but now believes she was deceived and that “Ashley may have been lying about her illness.”
Others also grew suspicious.
“Me and one of the girls here – we had a feeling about a month ago,” said Ashleigh Maria, who works at Hair Therapy. “We saw her on Facebook and during that time period, she as supposed to be sick but she never looked sick.”
Maria was one of the employees who worked with Ashley and her family during the free spa treatment.
“They were very polite,” she said. “Ashley didn’t speak much about (her possible cancer), but her mom spoke about it to the stylist. She was very heartbroken. Ashley might have said a few things but that’s about it. She seemed very healthy at the time.”
Morrow, who organized a private event for Ashley and her family, said she stopped soliciting donations for the family.
“We held a celebration of life because I truly thought she would pass away in a few weeks,” Morrow said. "There was food for 100 people, we hired photographers, a DJ – it was a chance to make photos. There’s so many people who are outraged right now about all of this.”
Morrow said she’s overseen a number of events similar to the one she held for Ashley and her family and that she now feels “embarrassed.”
“I feel like I’ve been made a fool of,” she said. “I solicited businesses to donate to her event. That makes my name look bad.”
WBIR 10News went to Lively's home to seek comment. Her brother-in-law said neither she nor her husband, Dalton, would meet with the 10News.
But, her aunt shared a text Lively sent Thursday to the family.
"I just want to go ahead and say I am so very sorry and please forgive me. The rumors are true. I never meant for any of this to happen. Before I done it, I was so depressed and so close to killing myself, which isn't an excuse whatsoever, but please know my intentions was never to take money from anyone. I just wanted the attention and it blew up in my face. I just don't know what to do. If I could take it back, I would in a heartbeat. I made a huge mistake and I'm begging for forgiveness, but if not, I understand. I do have a list of names of everyone who donated, and they will be getting your money back. We have spoke to detectives and are working out something, and I definitely will be getting help. I just want to apologize again. I am very ashamed of my actions and will do whatever I can do to make it right."