Marshall Penka wasn’t sure on Thursday which he was: a good Samaritan or a sucker.
When the long-distance truck driver stopped in Post Falls on Tuesday, he met 23-year-old Nichol Chastain. She was desperate to raise money for a brain cancer operation. Moved by the sight of a young face made puffy and bald from chemotherapy, he launched a one-man campaign to help her.
He urged reporters to tell her story in hopes that the public would contribute. He hugged Chastain when she broke down in tears. But not long after Penka had hit the road Wednesday with a load of office furniture, Chastain was arrested.
The charge: fraudulently trying to obtain a prescription drug by claiming an incurable illness.
“I am really shocked. Why would she have the hair loss if it wasn’t for chemotherapy? Here’s a woman that thinks so much of her hair, you just mention it and she starts crying,” Penka said Thursday.
“Did my kind heart get me in trouble?”
Chastain is the one in trouble. She remained in Kootenai County Jail on Thursday, with bail set at $5,000.
She was arrested at a Coeur d’Alene pharmacy early Wednesday afternoon after nine Spokane and Coeur d’Alene doctors reported she had faked a brain tumor to get morphine.
Six of them gave her the prescription, according to police.
She told the arresting officer that she did not have a tumor, said Capt. Carl Bergh of the Coeur d’Alene Police Department.
There could be additional charges of theft, Bergh said, stemming from Chastain’s use of a trust fund set up several weeks ago to collect donations.
First Interstate Bank closed the account Thursday. Spokeswoman Susan Thomas said $170 had been collected and would be returned to donors.
“We get so many contribution accounts for so many reasons,” she said. “You just don’t like to think people would misuse this. … I’ve never seen this happen before.”
The account helped convince Penka that Chastain was truly sick. But he did ask to see copies of her medical records. Chastain said they were in the mail from California, where she lived until recently.
She said she’d lived on and off in North Idaho, but came back to be near a brother.
Penka met Chastain after he’d checked into the Suntree Inn, waiting until he could pick up his usual load of furniture from the Harpers Inc. factory.
Chastain was in a pickup truck at the nearby McDonald’s with two teenagers, who started flirting with Penka via CB radio.
Penka jokingly asked for a burger. He got a sad story.
On Wednesday morning, the 48-year-old truck driver sat in the living room of the West Seltice house that Chastain shares with her boyfriend. Penka said he was a former Baptist minister who had become disillusioned with organized religion, but felt strongly about helping people.
“I make good money, but I don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “I’ve helped people who need food, rides, rent money.”
He said he was wary of people who don’t really need help, but that when God calls on him to give, he does so.
When Chastain said she used to dance at Deja Vu, a Spokane strip-tease joint, Penka didn’t blink. “There are no conditions on my help,” he said.
Chastain explained Wednesday that she had astrocytoma, a brain tumor that had spread. California doctors referred to a Denver hospital for surgery that, while it wouldn’t cure her, might set the stage for more chemotherapy that could prolong her life.
“I’ve got eight to 12 months to live. It’s not much of a life,” she said. “I live on morphine.”
Besides the pain-killing narcotic, she said she took steroids to reduce the brain swelling.
Drugs cost $560 a week, she said, and she was $8,000 in debt. She needed $2,000 to cover the cost of surgery that Medicaid wouldn’t pay.
“We’re bouncing checks,” she said, her voice cracking.
Penka’s boss, the owner of Michiganbased R&S; Transportation, had already agreed to provide a driver to get Chastain to Denver.
“I’ll be there for the surgery,” Penka said Wednesday.
On Thursday, he was in California, feeling hurt and puzzled that his instincts were wrong. He was worried that, if Chastain is an addict, she will suffer withdrawal symptoms in jail.
“At least she is somewhere where she can get some help,” he said. “I prayed to God to help her … I guess it shows we can fool man, but we can’t fool God.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo