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Jenny Cataldo is in jail, her friends are in disbelief after fake cancer scam exposed

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon

Alabama Political Reporter

Jenny Flynn Cataldo fooled a lot of people with her cancer scam.

Since I wrote about Cataldo and her long-running scam last week, exposing it for the first time, dozens of her (former) friends and co-workers have sent me messages to discuss their interactions with her.

They are, understandably, hurt. They are confused. They are angry.

Looking back, most all of them said, they can’t believe they didn’t see the signs of deception. Or even worse: many said they saw the signs, had serious doubts about Cataldo’s claims, but they either shook them off or simply backed away from her. They didn’t confront her. And now they feel used and stupid.

They shouldn’t.

I didn’t know Cataldo. I never worked with her, never heard her laugh that so many of her friends talk about, never shared any stories with her, never trusted her. And even so, up until the AG’s office confirmed what I suspected, I wasn’t 100 percent sure that Cataldo was faking her illness.

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Oh, I knew she had lied and misled her parents about a crazy series of legal events, including a $17 million malpractice lawsuit verdict that she won. I knew she couldn’t possibly be as sick as she claimed. I knew her claims about visiting various doctors and using a hospice care company were bogus.

But still, doubt lingered.

Because, dammit, who fakes cancer? Who upends their life to such a stunning degree? Who allows their 6-year-old child to believe that his parent is on the verge of death? Who does that?

It’s so abnormal, why would you suspect that of anyone, much less a friend?

Even the Attorney General’s Office investigator on the case, Jake Frith – a guy who deals with deception and awful humans on a regular basis – had his doubts until the subpoenaed documents came rolling in.

So, stop feeling bad that you didn’t suspect a friend of committing an awful deception.

And make no mistake, it was awful and it was large.

Dozens upon dozens of people donated to Cataldo – we knew that much from the GoFundMe accounts totaling $38,000. But what AG’s office investigators are now learning is that the deception went well beyond that.

Cataldo was utilizing Facebook and a network of church connections to solicit private donations. Copies of messages forward to me from Cataldo’s friends and acquaintances show Cataldo almost begging for money and using prayer and church messages to pressure people near to her into sending more and more money to her.

And they provided.

In the week before her arrest, a friend sent Cataldo a $5,000 check. Another friend donated over $23,000 over a period of several months. Others paid her bills, writing out checks to pay her electric and phone bills, even paying her mortgage. And all the while, Cataldo was either taking money from her parents for those same bills or taking in funds from her husband’s employment, or both.

Dozens of friends and strangers sent private donations or picked up the tab for Cataldo and her family to visit Disney World and Chattanooga.

At one point, Cataldo told her friends that her son had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and needed a bone marrow transplant. Money poured in to help with medical bills and the cost of a non-existent trip to St. Jude Hospital. She appears to have pulled this scam at least twice – once back in 2011-12, when her former co-workers at Calera Elementary School held a fundraiser for her, and again more recently.

Both times, the money came rolling in.

Which brings us to the biggest question – the one I get most often: What happened to all of that money.

The best answer I can give you: she spent it.

Sources familiar with the investigation said the money she hauled in essentially went to pay for relatively mundane things: junk from Amazon, various bills, expenses on trips, stuff for her son and restaurant meals – lots and lots of restaurant meals.

There was no large expense, no big secret, and so far, there doesn’t appear to be evidence of excessive drug use.

Instead, Cataldo seemed to be wrapped up more in the scam – adding twists and details to keep her story afloat and working over her friends and contacts. Her Facebook page is filled with posts and videos, some of which include her lecturing people on the value of life and taking nothing for granted. Most are her providing updates on her phony ailments and discussing personal conversations she’s held with her son and family that investigators aren’t sure took place.

To be certain, Cataldo was quite masterful at weaving a tale – one that provided the requisite details to keep money pouring in, but one that left hard facts and reality just out of reach for those closest to her.

She knew what she was doing, and she knew it was wrong. When I contacted her father the first time after he sent me the initial email, he must have told her later that day. Because by the following day, she had sent a text message to Jamie Moncus – the attorney who her father said had all of the records relating to the long-running legal battle over Cataldo’s court winnings. Catlado’s message to Moncus asked that he ignore me, telling him I was crazy and that I had been harassing her sick father.

In a phone call with me a couple of days later, Cataldo, unaware that I had spoken with Moncus and suspected her of lying, said she had tried desperately to get Moncus on the phone and to get him to turn over the documents relating to her case.

In a text message to me, Cataldo said she argued with Moncus over the documents. “I just spoke with Jamie, he is saying that if we speak out then anything he is working on they will not work with him,” Cataldo wrote to me. “I told him I want my own evidence and I will do it myself!”

Obviously, those conversations never occurred, and I never received the non-existent evidence.

What I did come to believe was that somewhere, for some reason, Jenny Cataldo went off the rails. She became a different person from the one her friends knew, and I suspect, from the one even Cataldo knew.

Earlier this week, a source close to the case said Cataldo attempted suicide in her cell in the Shelby County jail. She was placed on 24-hour suicide watch.

It was the latest sad chapter in a life that has spiraled downward in unimaginable ways. And taken so many good, well-intentioned people along for a horrible ride.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Opinion | What happened in Huntsville Wednesday night was disgraceful

Josh Moon

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Law enforcement officers in Huntsville assaulted dozens of people Wednesday night following a peaceful protest and march. 

This is the accurate description of what took place in Huntsville. 

I don’t care what you heard on “the news” or what you read on Facebook or Twitter. That’s what happened. 

Following a peaceful protest downtown — for which the NAACP obtained a permit, because it planned to block traffic — dozens of protesters, gathered to speak out about police brutality of black citizens in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, began to march around the downtown area. 

This is their right. It is guaranteed by the U.S. constitution. 

Contrary to popular belief, and according to legal guidance posted by the American Civil Liberties Union, you do NOT need a permit to peacefully assemble. In fact, it is against the law for anyone — or any law enforcement agency — to prevent you from peacefully assembling in response to a breaking news event.  

And yet, that’s exactly what happened in Huntsville. 

Huntsville Police, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department and — for some reason that no one could immediately explain — the Alabama State Troopers began firing tear gas and rubber bullets at people who were peacefully marching. 

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In attempting to explain why such actions occurred, Lt. Michael Johnson of HPD essentially admitted that officers acted improperly. 

He told TV station WHNT-19 that officers attempted to clear the area by telling the lawfully gathered crowd to disperse. When the crowd instead decided to exercise its right to assemble, Johnson said, officers began using force, including firing the rubber bullets at innocent men, women and children and spraying the crowd with pepper spray and tear gas. 

(Just a quick little FYI: Tear gas has been deemed a chemical agent and the Geneva Convention specifically bans its use in war. But it’s still legal for police departments to toss into peaceful crowds.)

Johnson said officers used force because they weren’t “going to roll the dice” and take a chance that the crowd could become hostile. 

Which — and while I’m no attorney, I feel comfortable going out on this limb — is not how the law works. You can’t impose force because you believe someone might break the law. Particularly when there is no evidence of that. 

And how do we know there is no evidence of it? 

Because Johnson just kept on talking during that interview, an interview led by WHNT’s Jerry Hayes, who was — and I’ll put this kindly — very police-friendly. As Hayes praised the police response and told everyone that the cops really had no choice but to clear the area by gassing children, Johnson explained just how well it had all gone. 

No officers were injured, Johnson said. No property was damaged, he said. They even had single-digit arrests/detainments, he said. 

So, again, law enforcement fired rubber bullets at peacefully assembled men, women and children who didn’t damage property, didn’t assault police officers and had every right to march on and alongside a public street. 

It’s not hard to understand why people are marching against police abuse. 

Democratic state Rep. Anthony Daniels, who represents the Huntsville area and who spoke earlier in the evening at the NAACP-organized event, compared the actions and the optics of the police attacking citizens to “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. On that day in 1965, Alabama State Troopers attacked a group of peaceful marchers because the marchers refused to disperse, and instead continued their march out of Selma towards Montgomery.

“I want someone to explain to me what the state troopers were doing at a peaceful event,” Daniels said. “What happened was a disgrace. That was a peaceful protest. Those people were following the laws and were not out of line.”

The same cannot be said for the officers. 

There are a number of videos of cops from various agencies firing tear gas canisters at people who are posing no threat, and in most cases are backing away from the officers, and randomly spraying down groups of people with pepper spray for no discernable reason. In one video that was viewed several hundred thousand times by late Wednesday evening, an HPD officer exits his patrol car, pepper spray in hand, and just starts strolling along, periodically dousing terrified people with the spray. 

It was disgraceful. It was ignorant. It was, most of all, simply wrong. 

There has been a lot of condemnation over the last few days of violent protests and criminal acts. And rightfully so. While many people understand and can empathize with the anger that lies beneath these protests, the majority doesn’t want to watch cities burn. 

I hope the same people who condemned those acts will also speak out against the violence committed by law enforcement in Huntsville on Wednesday.

 

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Opinion | Being silent is being complicit

Joey Kennedy

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A moment in time: I was a young journalist, just hired by The Birmingham News. I was standing on the street outside the old Birmingham News building. I had my coat and tie on. A man came up and stood beside me, also in a coat and tie, as we waited for the light to change so we could cross the street. An Alabama State Trooper car driven by a black officer passed by. The white man next to me leaned over and said, out loud: “I’ll never get used to seeing a n—– drive a state trooper car.” I looked at the man, startled, then quickly walked across the street.

I did not say anything to him. And I have regretted that inaction ever since. He assumed because I am white, like him, that I was also a racist. I vowed that day never to be quiet again.

The person who triggered me most, though, was my father. He used the n-word often, even as much of his older life was spent being taken care of by African-American workers at the nursing homes he lived in. Anytime I or my wife came around, he’d drop the word, and I’d tell him to knock it off. He never knocked it off.

In one of our last face-to-face conversations, in the fall of 2008, my father told me I could not vote for that n—— for president. I told him he couldn’t tell me who I could vote for, and I turned and left his apartment. He did apologize the next day, not for calling Barack Obama that word, but for thinking he could tell his 52-year-old son who to vote for. I did not forgive him, nor did I see him again. He died the next year.

The Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd by pressing his knee on the unarmed man’s neck for nearly nine minutes had the cold eyes of my father.

“I can’t breathe!” Police officer Derek Chauvin and the other three police officers with him did not care.

Six police officers in Atlanta are being charged for brutalizing two Georgia college students. Many peaceful protesters have been beaten by police or shot with rubber bullets as they exercise their constitutional right. And more and more often, journalists are being attacked by police as they cover demonstrations all over the nation.

Words have power, and Donald Trump’s words have incited brutality against journalists and others.

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Certainly most police officers, and I know a few, are wonderful public servants. But there is systemic racism imbedded in many police departments, and there is little question that our black and brown citizens are more often targeted because of the color of their skin. Police are much more militarized these days, too, using weapons of war against their own people.

My heart beats a little faster when I see blue lights in my rearview mirror. I cannot imagine the terror that grips my black and brown friends when it happens to them.

I love teaching at UAB because of its diversity. One important aspect I’ve noted, at demonstrations here in Birmingham and elsewhere, is how diverse the crowds are. It’s not a black thing. It’s a human thing.

But this is a black thing: I ask my African-American students each semester whether they have been stopped for driving while black. Easily 90 percent say they have. And they also have had “the talk” with their parents. You know, how to act if you’re stopped by a police officer. “Show your hands. Be respectful. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”

This exists in America, and it is profoundly sad.

While 77 percent of white Americans say they trust the police, according to a poll from Axios-Ipsos, only 36 percent of black Americans do.

There is a reason for that: Black people are being killed and terrorized by mostly white cops across the land. Even here, in a big mall, on a Thanksgiving night.

“I can’t breathe.”

The “leader” of our nation normalizes racism for many by his own example.

For the rest of us, though, we must reject racism wherever we find it in all of its forms. We must speak up, and march, and never let a person standing next to you on the street get away with it.

We cannot remain silent, or that knee will never be off our necks.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | With liberty and justice for all

Bill Britt

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Photo: Rosa Pineda

As peaceful protests over the last week have been marred by violence and looting, the nation should be asking what kind of country we are and what we are to become?

Are we to be the shining city on a hill or a lord of the flies kingdom of warring factions?

Most of the protesters who have taken to the streets across the nation are only asking for those things promised in The Declaration of Independence and quoted in the nation’s Pledge of Allegiance.

They want the promise of “all men are created equal,” with “liberty and justice for all,” to be fulfilled.

Amidst the chaos, we hear calls for “law and order” and chants of “No justice, no peace.”

A nation can have law and order without justice, but when justice is denied or meted out unequally, people will only remain silent or peaceful for so long.

Law, justice, and peace should flow from the same fountain but rarely ever do in equal measure.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi before him, showed the world the power of nonviolent resistance. From the Salt March, which took place from March to April 1930, in India, to the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965, a small band of individuals has shown that peaceful protests can overcome even institutional wrongs.

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But laws passed in the 1960s, while changing what was legal, didn’t answer inequities or alter everyone’s hearts and minds.

Even today, the dog whistles of racism and bullhorns of hate compete against calls for change.

Only when bigotry is shown in bright relief against the suffering of a nation’s citizens, do the powerful lose their stranglehold.

The murder of George Floyd is further evidence of a long-festering problem, and the ensuing rage is simply the manifestation of years of systematic mistreatment of black citizens. The laws may have changed in the 1960s, but the mindset of those who fought against that progress has been reborn.

As a nation, we cannot stand with a Bible in one hand and a club in the other and claim equal protection under the law.

Perhaps opening the Scriptures and letting the voice of Jesus speak, rather than holding his words as a prop, would be a good first step. Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Are these not the values we should hold dear?

I do not condone violence or property destruction, but I do understand the grievances that lead to both. We, as a state, and nation, can’t address the one without offering to answer the other.

President Trump’s failed attorney general Jeff Sessions has appointed himself as the spokesman for law and order. In a recent press release, Sessions said, “All over the country we have seen the results of ‘politically correct’ and completely ineffective leadership.”

Sessions blames, “Antifa, far-left radicals, and criminal thugs,” and many agree with him.

During George Wallace’s political rally at Madison Square Garden in 1968, he blamed anarchists, activists, militants, revolutionaries and communists for the nation’s ills.

Wallace also said, “The Supreme Court of our country has hand-cuffed the police, and tonight if you walk out of this building and are knocked in the head, the person who knocks you in the head is out of jail before you get in the hospital, and on Monday morning, they’ll try a policeman about it.”

Today, Wallace, like Sessions, would say that political correctness was the problem, not a culture that targets certain citizens.

Wallace expressed his disdain for demonstrators who tried to block President Lyndon B. Johnson’s limousine saying, “I tell you when November comes, the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it’ll be the last one they ever lay down in front of; their day is over.”

On Facebook, some Alabamians have suggested protesters be shot in the head if they resist arrest. And so it goes that the ugliness of human nature stands ready to repeat the sins of the past over and over again.

In an Op-Ed, Alabama State University President Quinton T. Ross, Jr., invoked the past in a very different way.

“Our nonviolent stand proved successful in the past, and I believe it could be the catalyst for real and impactful change. Let peace be at the core of all of our actions,” wrote Ross.

“While it seems as though remaining calm in the midst of a racist storm is a signal to be disrespected, disregarded and endangered, remember the lives that were lost to get us to this day. Remember the examples of those who were brutally beaten and rose up from that brutality to walk the halls of Congress, to become mayors, governors, state legislators and community leaders.”

Our nation was born out of public defiance in the face of political oppression. Our nation was to be a port for those seeking hope and justice in a world of tyrants.

President Ronald Reagan called the United States “the shining city upon a hill.”

“In my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace,” said Reagan in his 1989 Farewell Address to the Nation. He further said he saw the nation as, “A city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Reagan saw a nation where everyone was allowed to live with peace and prosperity. A place where all were equal, deserved freedom and justice. Is that not what we all want, including the protesters?

America has always been a land of promise, and many times, promises are not kept.

But today, our nation may very well be at a turning point.

Will the moral imperative of fairness break over the dam’s edge, or will some just add more sandbags to the top?

Will we decide liberty and justice for all are more than words we repeat by rote, and that everyone deserves the promise of America?

That is the question before us, and now what we choose will show who we are and what we will become.

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Opinion | Racism has broken America. We can fix it

Josh Moon

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The happiest day of my life was March 9, 2018 — the day my daughter was born. 

People who know my wife and me, or who follow either of us on social media, can likely tell that we’re crazy, helicopter parents who think our little Andi Lou is perfect. Because, well, she is. 

We also worry — A LOT. About everything. As we try to keep this little live wire safe and happy. It’s like a never-ending stream of what-ifs and what-abouts and should-we’s. 

Honestly, it’s exhausting. And there are times when I think it’s overwhelming. 

And then someone like Devin Adams gives me a glimpse into a world that I know nothing about. A world that I will never walk in. A world that will forever remain foreign to me. 

That’s the world navigated by the parent of a black child. 

Adams, a senior on the Auburn University football team, on Tuesday tweeted about using his football gear to stay safe in everyday life. Not the pads and helmet, but the jersey and other clothing that identifies him to cops as an Auburn football player. 

“I’ve been asked so many times why I wear Auburn gear all the time…,” Adams tweeted. “then they hit you with ‘YoU MuSt wAnT pPl tO kNoW YoU PlAy FOoTbAlL oR SoMEthINg’…. Lol not even knowing sometimes it’s a protection mechanism to just make it home safe.”

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Other black players responded that they do the same thing. 

Think about that. 

You can dismiss it as an exaggeration if you like — and maybe in some cases, it could be — but this is how a young, college educated guy in one of the safer cities in America feels every single day. 

He fears for his life to the point that he has altered what he wears every day to make OTHER PEOPLE more comfortable with him. To make cops not automatically assume he’s a criminal. To lessen the likelihood of a deadly encounter. 

Now, imagine sending your child out into that world every day. Imagine how Adams’ parents must feel — both knowing that he carries that fear and that the danger he faces is very real. 

Look, we can throw rocks back and forth at each other forever, and place blame on this person or that group, but at the end of the day, we know this is wrong. That young men feel this scared on a daily basis in our country, in our states, in our communities is simply wrong. 

And it is something that every single one of us should want to correct. 

We certainly want that safety for our white kids. We’ve moved mountains and rewrote laws to make sure they’re safe and protected. We’ve built new cities and schools. We’ve put fences and regulations up around our neighborhoods. 

But along the way, we vilified black citizens in the process.

For far too long (and even today in some spots), especially in the South, a “safe neighborhood” meant a neighborhood without black families in it. A “safe school” meant a school without many black students enrolled. Keeping your community safe meant isolating the black citizens to one specific area, dubbing it “n– town,” and telling your children to steer clear of it. 

These things are what led us to today. To the fires and the protests. To the anger and anguish. And to Devin Adams’ heartbreaking fear. 

We have to do better. 

And yeah, I know that’s a common sentence these days. One that’s tossed around without much thought. But I actually mean it. And I have an idea of how to make it happen. 

Affect those around you. 

Racism grows and spreads because it is not challenged. Racism flourishes out of fear — usually of the unknown. 

Don’t allow that with the people you can affect. Don’t stay quiet when friends and family members say ignorant things or pass along ignorant, clearly wrong information. After all, if they’re bold enough to say something stupid out loud, why shouldn’t we be bold enough to say something right? 

But most importantly: Teach your children — and anyone else who will listen to you — that the color of a person’s skin is as meaningless as the color of their shoes, and that skin color should never, ever be a barrier to friendship and love. 

Racism is learned. And it’s just as easy to teach kindness and inclusion. 

My daughter will never hear her parents use racist rhetoric or see us discriminate against anyone. She will play with kids of all races, and it will be as normal as a summer bike ride. She will watch animated shows with black and brown characters and will never know that there was a time when such a thing was incredibly odd. She will one day learn that she is named after a Civil Rights heroine, and she’ll learn that real history too. 

These are not grand gestures. They’re literally the least we can do. 

But I have to believe that if all of us focus on being decent people and changing and molding those we can, it will matter eventually. At least enough that Devin Adams’ children won’t have to wear football gear to feel safe in their own communities.

 

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