Sandra Beggs, 52, Geelong, Vic
Seeing Michael leave our manager's office, my heart sank. The tears streaking his face showed he'd been crying. 'Do you want to talk about it?' I asked. It turned out he had to pay $10,000 up-front for medical treatment for his brain tumour. Already broke, he was thinking about accessing his superannuation. 'Not only am I going to leave my kids without a dad but they'll also have no money,' he said.
I felt so helpless. For the past year I'd shared an office with Michael at the aged-care facility where we worked. Even before he started, I'd heard he was suffering from brain cancer. Now friends, we often talked about his struggles.
Although the cancer was terminal, he was having chemo to prolong his life. Some days he'd come into work as white as a sheet, shaking and sweating. He'd lost his hair and he'd often have a bandage over the spot where the nurses had put in a tube for chemo.
Michael was regularly off work sick, sometimes for weeks. Naturally, covering his workload was tough at times. 'I can't whinge though. Poor Michael is dying,' I said to my hubby Bill, 61, after another exhausting day.
To make things worse, Medicare didn't cover the type of cancer Michael had. He had to use his own money to pay for treatment. 'It costs me $800 each time just to have chemo,' he told me. His terrible financial situation played on my mind. What could I do to help?
I'd heard he was suffering from brain cancer.
I should organise a fundraiser, I thought. After getting permission from my manager, I spread the word to the 150 staff that we'd hold a trivia night to raise money. Spending my days off pounding the pavements, I got lots of local businesses to donate so we could have an auction too. After telling them Michael's story, they wanted to help so I got hampers of fancy food, boxes of posh wine and gift vouchers.
When I told Michael what I was planning, he seemed humbled. 'In the past I told myself I wouldn't accept charity but now I have no choice. Thank you so much,' he said, smiling.
My colleague Sandy also got involved, asking the hardware store where her mum worked for a donation. 'They've just asked for a medical certificate to prove he's sick' she said. I was a bit embarrassed to ask Michael to prove he had terminal cancer. Fortunately he wasn't offended and emailed me a scan of a letter from his GP which confirmed everything he'd told me.
In the run-up up to the trivia night Michael went on holiday to Bali. 'I feel so guilty, I should be saving money for my treatment,' he said beforehand.'Don't be silly. You need to spend time with your family,' I replied.
The trivia night was a huge success with everyone digging deep. 'Thank you so much. I feel very humbled,' Michael said during an emotional speech. He looked so healthy and tanned after his holiday in Bali, it was hard to believe he was dying. We raised $3510 to put towards Michael's treatment, which I deposited into his bank account. He was so grateful.
A few weeks later, I had a strange feeling something wasn't right at work. Michael hadn't been in for a while. Then my manager called me into her office and sat me down. She looked devastated. 'Michael. He lied,' she said
Thinking she said he'd died, I felt tears prickling my eyes. 'He lied about having cancer,' she added. My tears quickly turned to outrage. What did she mean he'd lied?That's when the whole story unravelled. Michael never had cancer. He made up the whole thing.
'Michael. He lied,' she said
It turned out that someone in our company had become suspicious of his story and had started asking questions. It soon became apparent that Michael wasn't receiving treatment at the hospital he said he was. After being confronted, Michael had confessed to lying and left the company. I felt so cheated.
All of those hours I'd spent organising the trivia night. Not to mention the pressure I'd been under at work to cover his days off. I'd shed so many tears over him and his kids!
As the news spread at work, other people cried. But I felt angry. He couldn't get away with this! That's when I decided to report him to the police. Both Sandy and I gave statements detailing what he'd said and how much money we'd raised.
In the meantime I went to the businesses who'd donated to the auction and told them what had happened. It was so embarrassing but they were really understanding.
On July 8 this year, Michael O'Keefe appeared at Geelong Magistrates' Court and pleaded guilty to obtaining property by deception, making a false document and making a false report to police.
The court heard he had lied about having terminal brain cancer for over 18 months. He even faked a medical certificate to support his lies. Michael's lawyer said he'd been suffering from alcohol addiction and had spent the money on booze.
Describing the crime as 'calculated', magistrate Michael Coghlan sentenced him to200 hours unpaid community work and ordered him to receive drug and alcohol treatment. I realised those mornings when he came in to work sweating and shaking he wasn't sick from chemo - he was hungover!
Now when I see a fundraiser I feel very distrustful. I got emotionally involved in Michael's cancer battle. Sadly it turned out he was just a conman. How sick is that?
Sandy Burn, 36, says:
When I think of all the hours I spent talking with Michael about his cancer battle, it still hurts. I never imagined anyone would lie about such a thing. He has a kid the same age as my little boy and I would go home and weep at the thought of leaving him behind like Michael was going to with his kids. Seeing Michael in court, he didn't look remorseful. The saddest thing is that money could have gone to someone who really needed it.
This story first appeared in that's life! Issue 40, 2015