The message sounded desperate.
"I need to raise $1,900 before the end of the night," it said. "My medical bills and everything has totally put us in the poor house. … I want to live and I want to stop losing stuff just because of this cancer."
The Facebook plea was from Dina Perouty Leone, who at the time, in June 2009, "was asking everyone and their brother for money," according to the message's recipient, Maurica Marcum, a former classmate of Leone's at Sparrows Point High School.
"I never would ask anyone or want others to know our business, so please don't tell anyone," Leone continued in her message. "I am just lost."
In fact, Leone had been seeking money from friends and acquaintances for months, prosecutors said, ostensibly to help her pay for treatment of terminal stomach cancer. As far back as October 2004, she wrote an Internet posting saying she had been fighting the disease for "over a year and a half" — only that time it was breast cancer. Later, she said she'd had cervical cancer for a decade.
None of it was true.
On Thursday, Leone — who has a son and a stepdaughter, both teenagers — is to be sentenced in Baltimore County Circuit Court on a felony theft charge to which she pleaded guilty in June. Leone, 38, who was ordered jailed after her plea, faces a maximum of 15 years in prison. She could also be required to serve most of an additional 10-year sentence for a violation-of-probation charge in Carroll County in connection with a mortgage scam in which, among other crimes, she was convicted of taking $11,500 from a Sykesville woman.
After her indictment almost a year ago on theft and conspiracy charges in the cancer case, Leone tearfully admitted on television that she had never had the disease but had pretended she did because her husband, Patrick Leone Jr., a construction contractor, "made" her do it.
Despite the chemotherapy treatments — which often cause nausea and loss of appetite — that Leone claimed she was enduring, she never seemed to lose weight from her 191-pound, 5-foot-3-inch frame, her friends said, and appeared perpetually rosy-cheeked. She could not answer basic questions about her medical care. At one point last year, she showed up at a gathering with a bald head, saying she had lost her hair to chemotherapy. But her friends said she'd had a full head of hair just two days earlier, yet another factor that raised suspicions.
Leone's lawyer, John M. Hassett, the third she has retained since her arrest, declined to comment on her behalf. Her sister-in-law, Kristy DeHoff, said she was "pretty ticked" about the scam.
"I was hurt in more ways than one, and so was my family," DeHoff said. "We thought she was dying."
Leone's friends, some of them cancer sufferers, responded to her entreaties. Marcum, a nurse, offered her the $20 she had in her PayPal account. "I can send it to you if u need it!" she wrote in their Facebook exchange. "Sorry, it's not much but I've been out of work for 4 months and things are tight. Let me know if that will help!!"
Others gave considerably more. Two women, on whose behalf Leone was charged, "lavished money on her," said Assistant State's Attorney Adam D. Lippe — more than $10,000 each. Both of those women, Jennifer Lynch and Jennifer Lasek — also a former classmate and wife of the nationally ranked skateboarder Bucky Lasek — confirmed to The Baltimore Sun that they had been taken in by Leone's tales, which included the assertion that she needed help because she had no health insurance.
Last fall, one of the women filed a complaint against Leone with Baltimore County police, and the allegations were investigated by an economic crimes team. Ultimately, the case was forwarded to the state's attorney's office for prosecution.
"In all her communication with us, she maintained she had cancer, would drop off her medical records and would provide us with her doctor's name," Lippe said. "Originally, she blamed one of the victims for lying that she did not have cancer, that the victim wanted to sleep with her husband, and asked us to have her arrested."
The prosecutor said a review of the defendant's checking account showed no payments to doctors' offices or hospitals, even as she was pocketing money from her friends for such purposes, but rather toward clearing overdrafts, paying her children's school expenses, grass-cutting services at their Rosedale home, bull-roast tickets and a deposit for a small dog — a pug.
In interviews with investigators, Leone variously claimed to have post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer and bipolar disorder, but would later contradict herself. At one point, according to the state's probable-cause affidavit, she said she "isn't the bipolar chick she used to be." Leone claimed "that the only time she asked for money from anyone was when her husband's car was going to be repossessed," the court document says.
But a former friend, Michelle J. Newberry, insists that Leone "has hurt and stole from loads of people."
"She purposefully set out to deceive and gain money by befriending people on Facebook to gain sympathy and donation," Newberry said. "She lied about her daily occurrences with chemo and hospital stays. She has bilked people from Dundalk out of tens of thousands of dollars and people are fighting mad to see her locked up."
"I sure hope justice is served," said Vicky Squires, a cancer survivor who had known Leone as a teenager and, after being contacted by her, spent months providing advice about how to cope with the disease. "I struggle every day with the effects cancer, physically and emotionally. I cannot believe Dina Leone took advantage of me, a cancer patient, struggling through chemotherapy."
Since the news broke of Leone's scheme, Squires said, she has lost a friend to cancer and another suffered a recurrence. Along with half a dozen other women, Squires provided The Sun with copies of e-mails exchanged with Leone, and other details of interactions.
In August 2009, after it became clear to most of Leone's friends that they had been deceived, Squires said she questioned Leone about why she had perpetrated the scam. In response, she received an e-mailed threat of a lawsuit for defamation "should you continue to slander my name."
Replete with misspellings, Leone's missive warned Squires to "not make any further rumors of my not being ill or about a criminal record you lie over and over about."
"It is none of your business how many cars I have, how many houses I own, vacation homes or how I can afford to send my children over seas. your jealousy is out of hand and is now requiring legal action. It is not my fault you want the life I live — even sick I don't milk it such as your self. Your a sick women and need help."
Earlier last year, in February, before the scam became known, Leone wrote to another former schoolmate, Sherri Zellers, and said her doctors were trying to "put me in the hospital."
"I am fighting them with all I have, but I think I may loss," she wrote. "If I go in I am sure to never come out. No one ever does. I am so depressed about it that I can't even fake a smile today. I have been trying to clear up all the lose ends for pat… I feel like I can't breathe… I am so scared Sherri… I have never been so scared in my life. I just have a bad feeling that I will die."