DENVER — Renee Scarpino wrestled with what to do about information that cast doubt on the stories her co-worker was telling about her son's cancer.
But after speaking with another co-worker, whose son was recently diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy, Scarpino decided to go to the police with her suspicions that Sandy Nguyen might be lying about her own son's illness.
Last Wednesday, Nguyen was officially charged with felony theft, charitable fraud and child abuse for allegedly faking that her son had leukemia for more than a year. Police said she collected thousands of dollars in donations, and even a trip to Disneyland, from family, friends and her son's school for his recovery.
Nguyen, a mother of three who is expecting a fourth child, told her son he had cancer and convinced everyone he was dying. Investigators say the 6 year-old even told them he thought he was going to die.
Nguyen posted Facebook updates about procedures her son never had.
Police recovered more than $20,000 in cash from her home, and Nguyen was arrested. She is scheduled to appear in court April 11.
Scarpino had worked with Nguyen for more than three years at a local salon. Over time, the hairstylists became work friends and connected on Facebook.
"I've been reading her Facebook posts for two and half years and never even suspected," Scarpino said.
Scarpino said she never suspected Nguyen could be lying, as police believe, about her 6-year-old son's leukemia.
According to the arrest affidavit and the Facebook snapshots provided to KUSA-TV, Nguyen posted about her son's supposed illness on social media. In one post from October 2013, she said he only had eight to nine months to live.
"We were told he needs another transplant to save his life," Nguyen wrote.
Scarpino says she is surprised she didn't see the truth earlier.
"In hindsight, I've looked back through all of them, and I'm like, 'Oh jeez, why did I not see that?'" Scarpino said. "It's not possible to have 317 chemo treatments and live. I absolutely had zero clue until my client said, 'that doesn't really sound right.' "
According to the arrest affidavit, Scarpino's client is a doctor at Children's Hospital Colorado. She overheard a conversation about Nguyen's son and asked some questions. She told Scarpino she knew all oncology patients at the hospital, and Nguyen's son didn't ring a bell.
Scarpino said she struggled with this information.
"I carried it for a good two and a half weeks," she said. "I just really couldn't wrap my head around the fact that she was lying. She was one of the nicest people I'd ever met."
Scarpino said after talking with another co-worker, Ashley Ortiz, she got the final push to go to the police.
Ortiz told Scarpino that her 7-year-old son, Devan, was recently diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy, also known as ALD. Ortiz said that her son has been at Children's Hospital Colorado.
Scarpino went to the police and they arrested 28-year-old Nguyen for essentially lying and theft.
According to the arrest affidavit, Nguyen admitted to officers her son wasn't sick and she made the whole thing up.
Scarpino hopes the path Nguyen has chosen doesn't affect people's generosity because there are people like Ortiz.
"I want the community to have a fundraiser for Ashley (Ortiz)," Scarpino said. "I would like the community to help her out while she's dealing with this with her son."
Ortiz said she never dreamed of asking for help, which she will likely need considering she had to quit her job as a stylist to be at the hospital with Devan.
"Devan is my hero," Ortiz said. "He's the happiest kid you can ever meet. He's always been so outgoing. He loves BMX, riding cars, anything fast."
Ortiz said Devan got sick essentially overnight.
"(He went) from being a normal kid one minute [to] being blind and not being able to understand pretty much everything that's being said to him," Ortiz said.
Tests revealed the disease is carried by women on Ortiz's side of the family. ALD is a rare genetic disorder that was slowly killing her son.
"He's in the grey. They don't know if we went through a transplant if it would even help," Ortiz said. "We might not be able to bring him home, but what do you do? We're going to enjoy whatever time God gives us or do you try to fight? We're trying to fight, but it's hard. Every day is very precious."