VERNAL — Up until two weeks ago, Abreail "Abby" Winkler had everyone convinced that her 4-year-old daughter was fighting leukemia, including the little girl herself. Vernal police now say it was all a sham.
"We contacted the Division of Child and Family Services. They were able to provide us with medical records and such, and nothing suggests that cancer was ever an issue," Vernal police detective Shaun Smith said Wednesday.
Winkler, 30, was arrested Tuesday, wrapping up a monthlong investigation into claims that she had accepted donations from individuals and groups that had been made based on her representation that her daughter was undergoing treatment for cancer.
"Some of the victims that have come forward have had children with cancer, and those individuals are obviously the most impacted," said Smith, adding that police believe Winkler accepted less than $5,000 in donations.
"We interviewed the child, and up until a couple days prior to us interviewing her, she still at that point believed that she had cancer," Smith said. "At this point, she knows that she does not and appears to be coping with it well."
The detective said there is no evidence at present to suggest Winkler did anything to make her daughter appear sick, although several community members told the Deseret News the girl appeared to be very ill at times and was even losing clumps of hair.
"Nothing that we could find in the medical records suggests anything foreign that would cause those kind of symptoms," Smith said.
There is evidence, though, that this is not the first time Winkler falsely claimed one of her children was being treated for cancer, he said.
When a "Be the Match" drive was held in Vernal recently to raise awareness about the need for bone marrow donors, Winkler's 11-year-old daughter became the event's poster child, with organizers telling people about a transplant that saved the girl's life.
"There's nothing to substantiate that (she had cancer)," Smith said.
Winkler, who was booked into jail Tuesday for investigation of communication fraud, was interviewed by police and "gave us what we needed," the detective said. Attempts to reach her at her clothing boutique, at her home and by phone were unsuccessful Wednesday. Her Facebook page had also been shut down.
Community members — particularly those whose lives have been touched by cancer — reacted to news of the alleged deception with outrage and disbelief.
"I'm not really mad," said MaryAnn Spainhower, whose 15-year-old son has been in treatment for a cancerous brain tumor for the past four years.
"I'm kind of baffled, surprised someone would do something like this," Spainhower said. "Anyone that's sat in a hospital or watched a child go through this would never want their worst enemy to endure it, so to fake it is surprising."
Jaime Toftum, who is undergoing treatment for leukemia and thyroid cancer, said she was suspicious of Winkler's claim that her youngest daughter was sick because of some of the things she said, but she never imagined it might be a hoax.
"This just blows my mind. I cannot even fathom being so desperate to lie about two children having leukemia," said Toftum, director of the Utah chapter of LEGOs for Leukemia.
Toftum was planning to give Winkler's daughter a box of Legos, which she collects for children with cancer, when she learned about the alleged deception. Now she's wondering whether she'll continue making individual gifts of the toys to sick kids in the community or only donate them to Primary Children's Medical Center for distribution.
"Children should be running, jumping and playing, not being sick. That's why I do this," said Toftum, who called Winkler's alleged actions "evil" and "twisted."
Winkler's ex-husband, Derick Winkler, now has custody of their 4-year-old daughter. Even he believed his ex-wife's claims that their child was sick until recently. He became suspicious after Winkler began telling him she needed to take the girl to a hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., for treatment.
"She is healthy, safe and happy now," Derick Winkler said, referring to his daughter. He added that he's grateful to the community for rallying around his daughter when it was believed she was ill.
"We're thankful for the help," he said.
As for Abby Winkler's two other children, Smith said DCFS is involved with the family, though he did not know what action, if any, the agency has taken.
The detective said anyone who donated money or services to Abby Winkler based on the belief that her daughter was sick should call the Vernal Police Department at 435-789-5835.
"Any information that comes to light, we will be pursuing," Smith said.
Spainhower said no matter how many people come forward, or how the case against Winkler is resolved, she hopes the community will continue to reach out to those in need.
"Our community is fantastic for giving locally and starting programs and helping people," she said. "I don't want people to stop doing that because of one person."
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