The accusations against Looker, who was known as a “cult” figure around Columbus, Ohio for his supposed brain cancer diagnosis, are detailed in a July 29, 2019 settlement agreement announced by the AG’s office. For nearly 10 years, Looker is accused of seeking charitable contributions for a non profit organization called Pelotonia that hosts a three-day bike tour each year to raise money for cancer research and patients, the AG wrote on the settlement document, which you can read in full here.
“This isn’t the crime of the century – but charity and deceit don’t mix,” Ohio AG Dave Yost said in a news release. “Hopefully the two organizations can now move forward in advancing their respective missions without having this hanging over their heads.”
Here’s what you need to know about John Looker:
1. Looker, Who Wrote That He Worked for a Bicycle Company, Was Pelotonia’s Third Annual Inspirational Speaker, Following Professional Cyclist Lance Armstrong And NFL Player Chris Spielman
According to his Facebook page, Looker worked at a bicycle company and was a former accounts and service coordinator for a furniture and construction company. He wrote that he studied at Ohio State University, went to Newark High School in Newark, Ohio, and lived in Columbus, Ohio.
The Pelotonia ride lasts 1-3 days depending on the route a cyclist chooses and is a minimal of $1,250 to ride. According to the organization’s website, 100% of the money raised goes directly to cancer research.
Looker was just a participant in the event its first two years, but quickly rose in popularity and was asked to open the third year’s ride with an inspirational speech.
Lance Armstrong opened the event in 2009, the first year the event was held, and Chris Spielman, a retired N.F.L. player, opened the second. Spielman’s wife, Stefanie, passed away after battling breast cancer. The speeches given by these two men were heartfelt and appreciated by the Pelotonia community.
Looker was the third year’s speaker. Even following household names like Armstrong and Spielman, he won the crowd, quickly becoming a star in the Pelontia world.
According to the New York Times, by the time Looker rose to popularity, Pelotonia had 5,000 active participants and had raised around $25 million. Looker’s first words on the Pelotonia stage were, “let me make this short and sweet, I have Stage 4 terminal brain cancer. I will ride tomorrow. And I won’t be making any excuses.”
He returned the following year to open the ceremony by singing the National Anthem. According to his partner at the time, Looker couldn’t go anywhere in public without people asking for a photograph or offering to pick up his tab at a restaurant or bar.
2. Pelotonia Announced “Love For Looker” Day Where Fans Tweeted in Their Contributions And Support
Baked goods fundraisers were a theme for Looker, since he spent most of his free time baking. When Looker published a letter about how his cancer had metastasized, Pelotonia promoted a “Love for Looker” campaign that asked local bakers and Looker supporters to commit to selling baked goods to raise money for him.
Looker’s supporters were dubbed Looker’s Hookers by his romantic partner of 17 years, Ben Addison. They rode for hundreds of miles to raise money for him, in what they thought was his time of need.
“Pelotonia’s almost a religion,” Addison said. “People take it very seriously.”
The very last fundraiser Looker held was a yard sale at his home. According to the Newark Advocate, in May 2016, Looker stopped giving raised proceeds to Pelotonia.
“In October 2017, Looker represented that 100% of all proceeds from sales of homemade cookies would go to the Dave VanWassenhove Memorial Scholarship at St. Francis DeSales High School in Columbus. In this instance, too, Looker did not donate the proceeds from those cookie sales as promised. The Dave VanWassenhove Memorial Scholarship is a need-based scholarship available to African American students from the greater Linden area attending DeSales,” the AG press release states.
3. Looker Tried to Help A Cancer Patient Whose Mother Grew Suspicious
When Looker reached out to Erika Decker, he had no idea she’d run a behind-the-scenes investigation on him that would blow his cover and call out his lies, she alleged.
“Everyone got away with everything. It’s disgusting that the truth never mattered to Pelotonia. It was all about the money,” Decker wrote on her Facebook page after the story in the New York Times broke earlier this week.
Decker, having tons of knowledge from walking through her daughter Lily’s cancer journey, didn’t believe the story on Looker’s cancer made sense.
“He would be O.K., and then they’d find one in his chest or head,” she said. “Every spring before Pelotonia registration his cancer would return. And he was always overweight.”
In 2015, Decker reached out to Michelle Merlino, a former coworker of Looker’s and member of the same cycling team. Merlino further affirmed Decker’s suspicions on Looker, mentioning she noticed he didn’t spend any time at the hospital, and that he worked full-time and still had the time and energy to keep up with his passion for baking.
4. Pelotonia Says It Was Not Able to Verify the Suspicions About Looker Because No Evidence Was Provided
Kelley Griesmer, Pelotonia’s chief operating officer, met with Merlino and Decker in 2015, and they shared their doubts about Looker with Griesmer, but weren’t able to provide any evidence. Pelotonia says that they weren’t able to verify the suspicions of Merlino and Decker because of patient privacy rights.
All promotion material featuring Looker was removed from Pelotonia’s website after that 2015 meeting upon the advice of legal counsel and the board of directors, according to Pelotonia.
Looker was later confronted by Merlino and Decker at his home and admitted to faking his cancer.
They asked for medical records, meds or any type of proof that Looker in fact had or has cancer. Instead, Looker broke down right away and confessed he had made the whole thing up.
“I need help,” he sobbed.
Five years prior, a journalist riding alongside Looker, published this in the Columbus Dispatch.
Every time he turns the pedals, it feels as though his right knee is filled with tiny shards of glass. The cancer in John’s brain has been spreading, to his neck and down his spine, and is now massing in his right femur and knee. There’s a chance he could lose his leg. ‘I’ll deal with it; I always do,’ John said.
He did indeed ride that year, 102 miles, despite some physical challenges. ‘My equilibrium is off,’ he told me back then of the cumulative effects of all the grueling, chemo- and radiation-filled years he’d endured. ‘If I focus really hard I can speak without stuttering. The same with riding my bike. If I take one hand off the handlebars … it’s like walking a tightrope and I start teetering and the handlebars start shaking. I can’t ride and drink at the same time. I have to stop.’
John still has problems concentrating and various parts of his body tend to break down from time to time due to all the life-saving, yet toxic chemicals that have been pumped through his veins over the years. And the cancer that he’s been fighting for most of his adult life keeps returning, multiplying and spreading.
“He was so good at his crime,” Dr. LeMay, one of Lookers closest friends said right after the truth was revealed.
5. Looker’s Real Diagnosis Came Out After the Fraud Accusations
Looker’s true diagnosis was manic depression and bipolarism, according to The Irish Times. Exaggerated or not, there were no criminal charges brought against him because of it. Looker was ordered by the attorney general’s office to pay a civil fee and to pay back the funds he pocketed, which was about $4,000 total.
Pelotonia published a letter about Looker’s betrayal on their community platform. Here is an excerpt:
Our team was bewildered by the possibility that John had lied about his cancer diagnosis. For anyone who has had cancer or watched a loved one battle it, the idea that any person would lie about having this awful disease seemed outrageous. So, with nothing but rumors, we turned to our Board of Directors and legal counsel for guidance on how to proceed in this unusual situation.
We weighed all the factors in consultation with legal counsel and our Board, including the potential for legal action or a community reaction against Pelotonia if we confronted an actual cancer patient with a rumor that proved to be false. Due to HIPAA laws, there was no way to independently verify that he was not telling the truth. Out of an abundance of caution, however, we discontinued the use of the video featuring John and we removed it from our website.
In 2018 the situation changed dramatically. A few people closest to John shared with Pelotonia that they had suspected for some time that he was lying. They also believed he had kept funds intended for Pelotonia, about $1,000 in cash raised in a garage sale in 2016. They shared with us their plans to confront him and then reported back that John admitted his cancer story was a sham. They expressed their shock and betrayal, feelings that were mutual with ours.