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Gambling mother is given a 'chance for redemption'; Placed of 5 years' probation in theft of son's cancer-treatment funds

Sentenced Wednesday to probation, the mother of a young cancer patient said she could not be more sorry for gambling away his benefit money.

"To my son and family and my community, I'm extremely sorry for what has happened," said Sherry R. Holcomb, 46, of Cortland.

State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski placed Holcomb on probation for five years for her felony conviction of scheme to defraud.

She gambled away $15,000 in benefit money raised to help her 21-year-old son, who was being treated for leukemia in Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

She opened a bank account, deposited the donations -- some raised at a benefit, some sent with get-well cards -- and then used ATM cards to withdraw the money to finance her gambling at casinos across the Northeast, prosecutors said.

In her confession last fall, Holcomb said, "A lot of the money I took out of the bank I spent for personal reasons, mostly for gambling. I've had a gambling addiction for the past six or seven years."

In court Wednesday, she called her addiction a "vicious, cunning and powerful disease process."

"People don't understand until you've lost everything or had a devastating effect on people around you," she told Michalski.

Holcomb has been in counseling since she pleaded guilty in September.

"I don't understand how it came to this," she added. "I can't be more sorry."

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III called it "a very tragic case all the way around."

"This wasn't a stranger stealing money to finance a gambling habit," Sedita said. "This was a young man's mother. It's a very sad case."

Michalski called her crime an aberration.

"What you did, and how you did it, is very troubling," he said.

She could have received up to four years in prison.

But the judge agreed with a presentencing report from probation officials that recommended probation -- not incarceration.

"You do deserve a chance for redemption," Michalski said, adding that he believes Holcomb is on that path. "I don't want to stand in the way of that."

Holcomb has paid slightly more than half of the $15,000 in restitution she must make.

"She has done everything she can to make this right," said Daniel DuBois, her defense attorney.

Prosecutor Candace K. Vogel listed nearly a dozen people who wanted their donations returned to them. Their donations ranged from $25 to $300 and totaled $1,475. Other victims did not demand their money back as long as the money benefited Ryan O'Donnell, the son.

Most of the money was not raised in Western New York, but at a benefit for the Ryan O'Donnell Fund in Central New York, where the family lives.

Her plea in September drew media coverage from across the nation.

In an interview with The Buffalo News late last year, Holcomb, a licensed practical nurse and supervisor for a group home that serves developmentally disabled adults, said her gambling addiction jeopardized her marriage and her career.

She also betrayed her first-born child.

O'Donnell was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma, a highly treatable form of leukemia. He was treated in Roswell Park a year ago, accompanied by his mother.

Holcomb was separated from the rest of her family in Cortland for five days at a time, she told The News last year.

Her son was not in court for her sentencing.

But he told The News last year that "no one ever asked me what I thought" about his mother being prosecuted.

He said he forgave his mother right away.

"Money's always been pretty trivial to me, and after everything that's happened, it means even less," O'Donnell told The News. "I understand why she did it. I get it. She was alone in a place she didn't know and had nothing to do all day long except see her possibly dying son. She had to have an outlet, something to do."