When tragedy strikes, whether it's across the country, or across the street, Americans often want to help. Most don't expect to be repaid. But two women did not expect what would happen. They opened their hearts and their wallets to someone in need. A woman they knew so well they practically considered her family. She told them she was battling a deadly disease, and they believed her. You may not believe what was really going on. This report airs Dateline Friday, July 21.
If a faithful friend is the medicine of life, then Jennifer Dibble got a double dose from her two best girlfriends, Tamara and Marlo.
Marlo Domagos, Jennifer Dibble's friend: She was like my diary. I told her everything.
Tamara Burross, Jennifer Dibble's friend: She was like my sister.
Tamara says she and Jennifer shared the most intimate events of their lives.
Tamara Burross: She was at the bedside when my daughter was born, holding my hand. And I equally was in the room when her youngest son was born, watching her have the baby. We were as close as I’ve ever been to any other friend.
In fact, at Tamara’s wedding Jennifer met her second husband Brian. Brian Dibble became an instant dad to Jennifer’s two sons from her first marriage and then Brian and Jennifer had three more sons together. Over the years, Tamara’s and Jennifer’s families shared nearly every birthday and holiday.
Rob Stafford, Dateline correspondent: So she was there at every turn whenever you needed her.
Tamara Burross: Everything.
Stafford: And if she were in trouble?
Tamara Burross: I was there also. I would do anything for Jennifer.
And Tamara wasthereand ready todo anything.
In the spring of 2003, Jennifer called with devastating news. That one phone call set in motion a cruel and painful chain of events that would ultimately test the bonds of their friendship and take a huge emotional and financial toll on those involved.
Tamara Burross: She had gone to the doctor and told me that they found something on an x-ray and that it was cancer.
Stafford: Terminal cancer?
Tamara Burross: terminal cancer.
Tamara Burross: She told us that she would be lucky to be around at Christmas.
And I think I cried for three days.
Jennifer told her friends the cancer had infected both a lung and a kidney. She was only 29. How could that be? The news was even tougher on Marlo.
Domagos: It was devastating and every day was so difficult because I didn’t know, at any given point, when the cancer was gonna take her life.
Stafford: Jennifer had done so much for you over the years and you felt it was time that you had to help her?
So these friends and others rallied to Jennifer’s aide. They knew nothing about the disease and, in their young lives, had never even known anyone with cancer. But with five boys and Jennifer’s husband working two jobs to make ends meet; they knew the family would need a lot of emotional and financial support.
But first, they tried to provide medical support. Tamara dug into the Internet, searching for a cure.
Tamara Burross: I got online and I found a treatment and one man that had survived this type of cancer—with an Interleukin treatment. And I sent her this link and I think it wasn’t but two weeks later that she was on that treatment.
Stafford: So you were making this your cause.
Tamara Burross: Oh yes.
Stafford: You’re fighting for your friend.
Tamara Burross: Yes.
By December 2003, eight months after that fateful phone call - Jennifer was still alive. Yet there was more bad news: her kidneys were failing.
Tamara Burross: It seemed hopeless.
Stafford: So everything that could go wrong is going wrong.
Tamara Burross: Yes.
Now, on top of the chemotherapy and radiation for the cancer, Jennifer would eventually get dialysis for her kidneys. Bandages hid the tubes and ports Jennifer said doctors put into her chest for treatments.
Video: A friend in need
Tamara Burross: She would sometimes call and sound very sick and tell me how hard it had been and how much she was throwing up.
Despite all the treatments, Jennifer said her prognosis was poor and she was living on borrowed time. That took a huge toll on Jennifer’s five sons—ages 3 to 11. The oldest boy’s grades dropped and even the three-year-old understood what was happening to his mom.
Tamara Burross: He couldn’t talk a whole lot, but some of his only words he would say would be, “Mommy sick. Mommy sick.”
Marlo said it was gut-wrenching to hear Jennifer talk about goodbye videotapes she’d made for her children and the plans she’d made for her own funeral.
Domagos: She wanted to be cremated. We talked in length about just her fears of death and the afterlife and all of the emotions that you go through about losing someone—was just very hard.
Still, no matter how bleak the future looked, Marlo said Jennifer stayed strong and hopeful.
Stafford: Even now, facing her own death, she’s as strong as she’s ever been?
Domagos: Uh huh. I hardly saw her cry.
Marlo and Tamara were determined to make life easier for Jennifer. And to make the most of the time she had left.
Tamara Burross: I said, “We’ve been so busy raising children. Let’s do a girls trip. Just one last girls’ trip.” So I took her to New Orleans.
Stafford: If you only have a year left, we’re…
Tamara Burross: Right.
Stafford: Gonna make that the best year of your life.
Tamara Burross: Right.
And Jennifer did make the best of it, taking more than a dozen trips with friends and family—to the Grand Canyon, New York, Las Vegas, and Disneyworld. Cancun. Even Paris and Lourdes, France, where Jennifer and her family prayed for a cure.
Stafford: Did you ask her where she was finding the strength for all this?
Tamara Burross: Yes I did, and she would just say she wasn’t gonna let this beat her and keep her down.
And her friends were more than happy to help pick up the tab.
Tamara Burross: Money is replaceable. But a life isn’t. And if I can give her the happiest year of her life, then money shouldn’t be an object.
Marlo says she spent about a thousand dollars on trips and pitched in another 500 in cash to help cover Jennifer’s medical bills. But it wasn’t just her best friends who kicked in the money. Jennifer’s parents and in-laws gave the couple an estimated 200-thousand dollars... While other cash came in from community fundraisers in and around Fort Worth, Texas—even a local church group.
Jennifer also got money through the Internet, where she belonged to a parent support group and posted emails under the name of “Five boys mom.”
Emails from Jennifer:
“You have no idea how shocked I was to see that you had all rallied around and surprised me with the donation... It touched my heart in more ways than one. The medical bills are paid!”
Her other postings were not so upbeat:
“The treatments are getting harder... very tired and very sick... If I don’t eat soon my doctor will place a feeding tube in and feed me.”
At the end of 2003, Jennifer had outlived her prognosis of death by Christmas. But in the early months of 2004, she suddenly dropped 25 pounds, prompting friends to worry that the cancer might be finally taking its toll.
Domagos: It was horrible to try and see her decline like that.
Stafford: Did you break down in front of her?
Stafford: And how would she react when that happened?
Domagos: Supportive, trying to keep me positive. She’s very strong. You have to know her to know how strong-willed she is.
So strong, in fact, she refused to let anyone take her or go with her to treatments. That concerned her girlfriends, but they could never change her mind.
Stafford: Did you offer to take her to chemotherapy?
Stafford: And what did she say?
Domagos: She said no. She didn’t want anybody going with her. She’d say, “I’m not gonna put my family and my friends through that. I’m gonna handle this on my own. I don’t want to have to see you guys there, upset and crying.”
And when it seemed Jennifer’s health couldn’t get much worse, Tamara and her husband, Michael, received another stunning phone call.
Tamara Burross: She called me and told me that she had spent the night in the emergency room because she had a heart attack.
Stafford: In the middle of terminal cancer.
Tamara Burross: Right.
Stafford: Having dialysis for the kidneys.
Tamara Burross: Right.
Stafford: Chemotherapy and radiation
Tamara Burross: Yes.
Stafford: And now a heart attack on top of all this?
Tamara Burross: A heart attack.
Michael Burross: Yes.
Stafford: So this has gone from bad to worse.
Tamara Burross: Yes. How could so many bad things happen to one person?
Michael wondered exactly the same thing—but his concerns were for entirely different reasons. He saw things about Jennifer that others had not.
Michael Burross: I'm starting to think to myself that some things may not be adding up.
Stafford: You’re starting to have questions.
Michael Burross: Yes.
Stafford: But you’re walking a tight rope?
Michael Burross: Right.
Stafford: And you’re talking about your wife’s best friend?
Michael Burross: That’s exactly correct. I don’t want to say anything that could set Tamara off, but at the same time there’s a piece of the puzzle missing somewhere.
It turns out Michael wasn’t the only person with nagging questions about Jennifer. Questions a private detective’s hidden camera would soon help to answer.
More than a year had passed since Jennifer Dibble announced she had just eight months to live. But despite her dramatic weight loss, she didn’t look like a woman on the verge of death. In fact, her best friend’s husband says, far from it.Video: Hidden cameras expose a healthy woman
Michael Burross, Jennifer Dibble's friend: She looked like somebody who’d been working out, who was healthy, and she started wearing a lot of like spaghetti strap shirts. And her arms looked like they were muscular.
Rob Stafford, Dateline correspondent: You’re saying she’s actually looking better than she used to look?
Michael Burross: Yes. Best she’s ever looked.
Stafford: All with terminal cancer?
Michael Burross: Yes.
How could someone so sick look so good? As the months passed, Tamara began to admit to her husband that she, too, had serious questions about Jennifer’s condition. Why wouldn’t she reveal who her doctors were? Why wouldn’t she let anyone go with her to her treatments? And why wasn’t this dying mother of five little boys spending more time at home with her children?
Michael Burross: The kids were constantly in the care of relatives, they were not with her. And even the way she talked about them changed. It was very disturbing to me. At that point, I couldn’t make excuses for that. And that is when I thought something is wrong and I got serious about finding out what was going on.
After all, Tamara had a special relationship with Jennifer’s two oldest sons. And here’s why: Tamara’s brother is the father of those children. He was Jennifer’s first husband.
Now with the children’s welfare at stake, Tamara felt she had to act. And just as doggedly as she had taken up Jennifer’s cause, Tamara investigated her suspicions. She called a dialysis clinic and a hospital and quizzed a nurse, asking her to describe how chemo and dialysis affect patients.
Tamara Burross: Often their skin is ashy, that they wouldn’t look tan or vibrant.
Stafford: People going through dialysis don’t look like Jennifer Dibble.
Tamara Burross: No, no.
And she found out something that really rocked her belief in her friend: the hospital where Jennifer said she was getting some of her treatments didn’t offer them to outpatients like Jennifer. It seemed like she’d caught Jennifer in a big lie.
Tamara Burross: I asked her how her chemotherapy and dialysis had been and she said, “Oh, fine. It was hard.” I said, “Do you get it right there together or do you have to go somewhere else?” And she says, “No, I get both at Harris Methodist downtown.” And I said, “They don’t do outpatient dialysis at Harris Downtown.”
Stafford: What did she say?
Tamara Burross: She was quiet and she said, “Yes, they do.” And I said, “No they don’t. I spoke with them today.” And I told her what I had found out. And she says, “So, what are you saying?” And I said, “I’m saying that I don’t believe you anymore.” And the words just came out. I didn’t even know that they were gonna come out—but they just did.
I was shaking. Yes, I was devastated. But I needed to know the truth.
Tamara pressed for answers.
Tamara Burross: At one point in the conversation, I just said, “Jennifer, why? Why would you do this? Why lie?” And at that point she said to me, “Because the truth never got me anywhere.”
But what was the truth? And what exactly was Jennifer lying about? Tamara had strong suspicions she’d been had, but no real proof. So she took her concerns to other relatives who admitted they, too, had serious doubts about Jennifer’s story. They all agreed they needed to know the truth: was Jennifer sick and dying or was she pulling an incredible scam? And if so, why?
Stafford: You look at Jennifer and what do you see?
Ozzie Allsbrooks, private detective: A blonde with a great tan.
Allsbrooks: You’re suspicious right away?
Jennifer’s doubting friends and family took a bold step and hired private detective Ozzie Allsbrooks, a former cop and seasoned investigator who was painfully familiar with cancer. His own brother was dying from it.
Allsbrooks: I know how weak and tiring it was for my brother just to take light doses of chemo. She claimed to have taken chemo, dialysis and physical therapy five days a week. There’s no way. It’s impossible.
Jennifer Dibble didn’t seem anything like the cancer patients he’d seen.
Allsbrooks: Did you hear from anybody yet?
So Ozzie began checking the long list of hospitals Jennifer said she’d visited for treatment.
Stafford: Duke University, any record of Jennifer Dibble?
Stafford: MD Anderson?
Stafford: Harris Methodist Hospital?
Stafford: No record of Jennifer Dibble being treated for cancer at any of those three places?
And that midnight ambulance ride to the emergency room for a heart attack?
Video: So many victims
Allsbrooks: No record of any emergency room appearance by Jennifer Dibble.
Stafford: What about the heart attack?
Allsbrooks: She didn’t have one.
But what about all those hours she spent away from her children?
Stafford: Was she getting dialysis?
Which begged the question: If Jennifer wasn’t at the hospital during that time, when friends and family were watching her kids… where was she?
To find out, Ozzie and his video surveillance team went to work tracking Jennifer for four days. While she was telling relatives how tired the treatments made her, she had no idea hidden cameras were capturing her every move.
Stafford: She says she was exhausted and when you did surveillance, what did you find she was doing during that time?
Allsbrooks: Shopping. She was followed into Wal-Mart, followed into Walgreens and some of the people that worked there made statements indicating that the blonde was back.
And Ozzie found the source of Jennifer’s great tan and buff biceps.
Stafford: You saw her going into the tanning salon?
Allsbrooks: My investigators did, yes.
Stafford: On tape?
Allsbrooks: On tape.
And that’s not all they got on tape: Jennifer is even carrying her own bottle of suntan lotion as she leaves the tanning salon.
And when Jennifer said she was getting therapy? She was getting a work-out alright, at a private membership club called 24-Hour Fitness.
Stafford: 24-Hour Fitness? Shopping, tanning, working out...
Allsbrooks: And going to a movie.
Stafford: Any doctors appointments in there?
Allsbrooks: None at all. All she was doing was killing time.
Killing time while her friends and family worried cancer was killing her. All the while, they were cooking meals, taking care of her children and taking her on last-wish trips.
She put together a cold-blooded, willful, and intentional scam and it worked so well she kept playing it for everything it was worth for 16 to 18 months.
Ozzie said Jennifer’s performance was worthy of an Oscar.
Allsbrooks: She was faking it the whole time.
Stafford: What do you think the motive was here?
Allsbrooks: Greed. Money.
Ozzie estimates Jennifer took in at least a quarter of a million dollars—and maybe double that—from relatives, friends and strangers who responded to her plight.
Allsbrooks: It’s like everybody said, “Well, she’s got five kids, why wouldn’t we give money to her?”
Stafford: And you’re saying she used those five kids as bait?
Jennifer’s friends agree that money was a big motive, but not the only one.
Tamara, Jennifer's best friend: Looking back over our friendship, it was the most exhausting friendship I’ve ever had—lots of crises, unbelievable odds this girl faced constantly and I have to believe that maybe some of that was fabricated as well. So, I think her need for attention is great.
But even for a drama queen like Jennifer, her performance as terminal cancer victim was the cruelest of cons.
Tamara Burross: How dare she? How dare she spend time at the movies by herself? People were sitting around losing sleep thinking that on these days she was suffering, she was going through chemotherapy, throwing up, and meanwhile she was at the tanning salon. At the tanning salon!
Michael Burross: Now we know why she looked better than she ever looked before—she took advantage of everybody that surrounds her—not just financially but emotionally. She robbed from a lot of people.
In the fall of 2004, Jennifer’s current in-laws and her first husband took her to court to get custody of the five boys saying they thought Jennifer was mentally unstable.
After 18 months of holding her friends and family emotionally and financially hostage, Jennifer’s scam finally collapsed around her when she couldn’t produce her medical records during the custody hearing.
Jennifer Dibble never had cancer.
As the judge noted in the file, Jennifer “admitted she has not received chemotherapy, radiation or dialysis.” The judge then removed the five boys from Jennifer’s custody.
Meanwhile, Ozzie turned over his evidence to the FBI and federal prosecutors, who say they’re still investigating.
And what about Jennifer’s husband, Brian? Did he know what was going on? Was he in on it? Ozzie thinks yes...
Allsbrooks: It’s easy to hoodwink five children that are minors but for a husband, no. I have a wife that has cancer? She’s not walking out that front door without me to go to any treatment.
Stafford: You’re saying, how could he not know?
That’s just one of the questions we put directly to Brian Dibble himself when he sat down and talked to Dateline.Video: Did she act alone? And why?
With a college degree and a job as a chemist, Brian Dibble is trained to analyze things. But when it came to his own wife’s claim that she was dying of cancer, he insists he had no clue that she faked the ordeal for nearly 18 months.
Rob Stafford, Dateline correspondent: You’re saying that this was all a scam.
Brian Dibble, Jennifer's husband: Yes.
Stafford: Were you in on it?
Brian Dibble: No.
Stafford: Did you know about it?
Brian Dibble: No. I didn’t. I was not in on it.
Stafford: You had no idea that your wife was lying?
Brian Dibble: I had no idea.
Stafford: How didn’t you know? I mean, how did you miss it?
Brian Dibble: I was so disconnected from her. I was working long hours, worrying about my kids, worrying about keeping everything together that I didn’t have time or the inclination to question her through any of this.
They married back in 1997. Brian says he was deeply in love with Jennifer and embraced her two sons from a previous marriage before they had three more boys of their own. But by 2002, just five years later, Brian says the intimacy was gone and he was working two jobs in a desperate attempt to please his wife.
Brian Dibble: She wanted more of the American dream. She wanted to live in a bigger house, she wanted to drive a nicer car, have more clothes and what made her feel good were money and material things.
Stafford: And you’re getting more and more in debt?
Brian Dibble: Yes, definitely.
Buried in bills and marital problems, Brian says he suffered an emotional breakdown and eventually told his wife he wanted out. But he says Jennifer threatened to leave with the kids. And a few months later announced she was dying of cancer. So he decided to stay and try to keep his family together.
Stafford: Did you take her to chemotherapy?
Brian Dibble: No, she has always been a very private person—never wanted anybody in the family to go with her.
Stafford: Did you speak, specifically, with her doctors?
Brian Dibble: No, we were strictly forbidden to talk to anybody at that time…
Stafford: Who was forbidding you from doing it?
Brian Dibble: Her.
Stafford: I can’t imagine any husband being that disengaged from his dying wife’s treatment.
Brian Dibble: Yes. She just didn’t want me to be involved in anything medical—or anything to do with her personal life. We had become so disconnected that I didn’t get to be involved with her the way normal spouses would be.
Brian says he never saw his wife naked and without her bandages. And he never questioned why she looked so buff and tanned while supposedly undergoing debilitating treatments.
Brian Dibble: I didn’t know a lot about chemotherapy and the reactions and the side effects.
Stafford: But aren’t you a scientist by profession?
Brian Dibble: Yes.
Stafford: A chemist... you don’t have to be a chemist to realize that people with terminal cancer usually don’t look the way Jennifer looks.
Brian Dibble: Yeah. I know. Emotionally I wasn’t strong enough to sit there and think rationally about what was going on.
Brian admits his family benefited from an outpouring of love and money from relatives, friends and strangers. But he says he has no idea how much came in or where the money went because Jennifer handled all the books.
Stafford: What do you have to say to the families, to the strangers who opened their hearts and their wallets to help you out?
Brian Dibble: I am truly sorry that this has all happened. It really saddens my heart that my wife took advantage of people in this situation to gain money through false pretenses and it sickens me.
Stafford: If it sickens you that much, why have you stayed with her for more than a year since you found out this was a scam?
Brian Dibble: I always thought that what I needed to do was stick by my wife ‘cause I knew she was sick. Truly sick, not with cancer. But, emotionally sick and that she needed to have help.
And Brian thought if he could help Jennifer, he’d finally get what he yearned for—a loving relationship...
Brian Dibble: And I would have that life that I’ve always wanted. I would have that wife that I could love and she would love me. And we’d have a wonderful family together—I just knew I could do it.
But Brian says his wife chose not to have therapy fearing anything she disclosed to a therapist could be used against her in court if she’s ever charged with a crime. At the same time, Brian says his efforts to salvage their marriage failed. And as Dateline pursued the story and the federal investigation heated up, he filed for divorce.
Stafford: Are you trying to cut and run just as the heat is really turning up?
Brian Dibble: No, I’m not. The reason I left my wife was that she had totally changed. She was not coming home at night. She had changed her physical appearance, her demeanor and come to find out she also was seeing somebody else. I could not take it anymore.
Jennifer countersued for divorce and the pair wound up in a Fort Worth, Texas courtroom in January. That’s where we finally caught up with Jennifer, who had never returned our calls.
Rob Stafford phones Jennifer Dibble:Jennifer. Rob Stafford, Dateline NBC. I’d like to talk to you. Why did you lie about having cancer?
We tried again as she left court.
Stafford asks Jennifer Dibble: The big question is, why would you lie about the cancer?
Attorney: Excuse us. (slams door)
Although Jennifer wouldn’t talk, she sent her father, Mark Rubio, to speak on her behalf.
Stafford: Why did your daughter lie about being sick?
Mark Rubio, Jennifer Dibble’s father: Well, because she had five children to take care of. Her husband was having an affair and she thought that would be a good way to keep him around, perhaps.
Stafford: How could she make her kids think she was dying?
Rubio: I don’t know. It’s a strange thing and obviously she’s got some kind of—I don’t know.
Stafford: I things were so bad in the marriage, why didn’t Jennifer just file for divorce?
Rubio: Have you ever tried to file for divorce when you’ve got five kids to take care of? Who is going to pay for’ em? I don’t know why.
Stafford: And when you see your daughter sitting at a fundraiser? You think that’s okay?There’s a pic of her with big smile on her face and a big jar of cash.
Rubio: Absolutely not.
Jennifer’s dad says his daughter feels remorse and was “absolutely wrong” to lie about the cancer and take money from strangers. He says most of the donations came from relatives and that no one has sued her to get the money back. Jennifer has not been charged with a crime but the investigation continues. In court papers, she denies having an extramarital affair.
Brian Dibble told us he didn’t cheat either and points out that Jennifer never alleged adultery in her divorce petition. He says his wife feels no remorsefor faking cancer.
Brian Dibble: She has gone on day by day thinking that she has skirted this without any repercussions, without any remorse, without anything where she’ll have to answer to anybody.
Stafford: How do you think she feels about what she’s done to Tamara and Marlo?
Brian Dibble: She doesn’t care. She feels that they betrayed her and she feels no remorse for those people at all.
Tamara and Marlo say theyare the ones who feel betrayed by Jennifer. She’s never apologized or offered an explanation, leaving them to wonder why she would live such a lie? Why subject her loved ones—and especially her own small children—to this kind of pain?
Marlo Domagos, friend of Jennifer: You know for a year I had prayed for her to get well. How could she do this to everybody that loved her, everybody that supported her?
Stafford: How many times have you gone over every conversation that the two of you had during that period?
Domagos: Like too many times to even count. It makes you question trusting people again.
Tamara Burross, friend of Jennifer: How could she trade wonderful people in her life, wonderful friends, family that loved her? People that had such high opinions of her, for this lie? Whether it was sympathy, attention, money, why was it worth it? I would really like an answer to that but I doubt I’ll ever get it.
Stafford: Do you think she’s sorry for what happened?
Tamara Burross: I think she’s sorry she got caught.
Jennifer Dibble's children no longer live with her, but she does get to visit. Divorce and custody proceedings are still pending.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints