“Your work is absolutely inspiring and always blows our minds,” Louis Tomlinson told the audience at the charity Cinderella Ball at London’s Natural History Museum.
No one had a reason to disagree with the One Direction heartthrob as he delivered a moving speech about teenagers Megan Bhari and her mother Jean.
For three years, the couple’s charity, Believe In Magic, has been granting wishes to seriously ill children – many of whom were in the audience that night in 2015.
Believe In Magic received the support of A direction and the prime minister.
People admired how hard Megan worked while publicly fighting one brain tumor.
But the charity was hiding a dark secret.
A team of concerned parents found Jean and Megan were staying at a luxury Disney resort while raising money for the teen’s “life-saving treatment”.
They accused her of lying about her illness. But then suddenly Megan died.
As a journalist and author, I know scams all too well.
But when I followed this incredible deception story for my latest BBC podcast, Believe In Magic, even I was shocked by what I found.
Megan, who grew up in south-east England, was just 16 when she started the charity with her mother in 2012.
It was inspired by her own poor health.
At the age of 13 she was diagnosed with a brain disease idiopathic intracranial hypertension and shortly thereafter, it turned out that it was indeed a brain tumor.
The teenager had a unique PR talent and often took to social media to charm celebrities. And it has paid off.
After A direction When Megan was on The X Factor in 2010, she was invited to meet the boys. This resulted in them being snapped wearing the charity’s bracelets.
The band even raised £400,000 by auctioning off backstage passes.
For a year, a group of poor youths were driven in Bentleys to Buckingham Palace to help decorate a tree.
One parent recalls, “It was out of this world.”
Then Prime Minister David Cameron praised Megan’s “extraordinary courage”.
But everything changed one day in 2015 when Jean announced that Megan’s condition had deteriorated and she needed £120,000 to pay for urgent life-saving treatment in the US. Within a few hours they had reached their destination.
Mum-of-three Jo Ashcroft, from Wigan, watched the donations pour in – but thought something was wrong.
Jo herself had to come up with £250,000 for her son’s life-saving treatment in the US after the two-year-old was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2011.
The language in Megan’s appeal was vague and lacking in detail, and there was no mention of which hospital Megan would be treated at.
Jo told me, “I don’t want people to be betrayed, especially in the cancer community.”
She set up a fake profile on Facebook and even posed as a journalist wanting to write a story about Megan to get answers, eventually confiding her concerns to other parents.
And when they saw that Megan and Jean were back in the States the following year asking for more money, that spurred them on even more.
After some clever online research, internet sleuths found that when Jean and Megan begged for more money to fund emergency care, they were actually staying in a luxury lodge in New York Disney WorldFlorida.
And when the couple returned to the UK, Jo hired a private investigator to secretly take photos of them disembarking the Queen Mary II passenger liner.
Connected to oxygen
According to the investigator, they laughed and chatted as they strolled past the porters — not on the brink of death and hooked up to oxygen, as Jean had claimed.
The concerned parents tried to warn authorities – but when they shared their research online, most people refused to believe it.
Jo remained convinced that the story hadn’t worked out. A year later, Megan was dead.
For me, the story began two years after Megan’s death.
My perceptive BBC colleague Ruth Mayer was reading an article about the Charity Commission’s closure of Believe In Magic in 2020 when she spotted a cryptic line in the comments section below: “The full truth is so much darker.”
Ruth contacted everyone involved hoping we could find out the whole truth. Darker was an understatement.
After several requests, Ruth and I were granted special permission to listen to a recording of a 2018 forensic examination that took place shortly after Megan’s death.
Several doctors gave more details.
One questioned the validity of Megan’s medical history, noting her “opioid-seeking behavior.”
There was an attempt to obtain morphine using a fake prescription.
Megan’s half-sister Kate recalls that Megan took morphine once a day.
Upon examination, one doctor feared she was taking “a higher dose of opiates than required” and wondered if “that was one of the reasons she was unwell.”
Megan repeatedly missed doctor’s appointments and flitted from doctor to doctor.
Professor Marc Feldman, who has worked with patients faking or exaggerating illnesses, commonly known as Munchausen syndromeHe told us, “I have seen many cases not at all unlike this one.”
Some do it for money, he explained. Others want attention or want to be taken care of. Kate believes the charity was founded out of a desire to connect with celebrities – and One Direction in particular, which Megan was reportedly obsessed with.
According to Professor Feldman, it’s becoming increasingly common for people to fake illnesses to hit stars.
A serious illness, he explains, “allows one to stand out from the crowd of people who are fascinated by this celebrity.”
He also examines Munchausen syndrome by proxy — when a parent or caregiver fakes or exaggerates their child’s illness. In the UK this is now known as manufactured or induced disease.
We will never know who exactly drove this behavior.
But Kate, who is now estranged from Jean, told us how she felt Jean would have wanted the “thrill” if one of their children had an accident.
And if anyone they knew was unwell, Jean soon told them Megan had the same illness.
Kate says, “You [Jean] infantilized them – the Peter Pan effect. It was just about keeping them young.”
Based on our description of what we discovered, Prof. Feldman says Megan’s case “cries out” for FII.
As we neared the end of our investigation, we found that Kingston Council in south-west London had also looked into Megan’s case.
Earlier this year, it released a rare adult shelter account of her death.
The names have all been changed, but we have no doubt it’s Megan.
It concluded that despite the lack of a formal diagnosis, “all those involved…” . . I think it was probably FII.
The review did not suggest that FII was responsible for Megan’s death, but explained how her case may have been overlooked because the healthcare system is not set up to recognize it in adults.
A few weeks later we received an email from Megan’s mother Jean.
For months we had tried to contact her, even traveling to France and the south coast of England, hoping to ask her questions.
In her email, Jean claimed that Megan had been diagnosed Pituitary microadenomaa type of benign brain tumor that, while not usually life-threatening, can be harmful.
She said: “I loved my daughter and cared for her. To suggest that I could have done anything to her in any way is absolutely disgusting.”
We may never know the whole truth. But according to one expert, Megan’s story could help medical professionals spot similar cases.
It might be too late for Megan. But maybe it’s not too late for someone else.
- The Believe In Magic podcast is available on BBC Sounds. The episodes are released every two weeks.