Section: Features

Pelotonia cyclist John Looker faked cancer for over a decade

Pelotonia cyclist John Looker faked cancer for over a decade

Cyclists at a Pelotonia bikeathon in Columbus this July. The news of John Looker’s settlement broke shortly before the charity races began. Kenyon has hosted the bikeathon since 2011, providing more diverse biking routes for Pelotonia participants. | ERYN POWELL

For ten years, Columbus resident John Looker convinced the world that he was fighting brain cancer. Looker was a vocal participant in Pelotonia’s summer bikeathon for cancer research, which has some of its finish lines in Gambier. In central Ohio, he accumulated a large fan base, who themselves “Looker’s Hookers” and pledged money to his fund as well as participating in the bikeathon in his name. Looker had long, emotional email exchanges with his fans, most of whom had been diagnosed with or lost loved ones to cancer.

Looker ran an active Facebook account, where he would post regular updates about his condition. “The cancer has metastasized into the pelvis,” wrote Looker in 2013. “Chondrosarcoma is the best guess, but it all boils down to cancer.” Posts like these, where Looker’s tumors seemed to move around his body without a recognizable pattern, were the first signs that something was amiss.

In 2018, it was revealed Looker faked his cancer. On July 31 of this year, Pelotonia’s President and Chief Executive Officer Doug Ulman published an open letter on the organization’s website denouncing Looker. “There are still feelings of deep disappointment and a sense of betrayal over John’s deception,” Ulman wrote.

Pelotonia established Gambier as a finish line in the summer of 2011, when the organization decided they wanted more variety in their bike routes. They made a proposal to Mark Kohlman, the College’s chief business officer an avid cyclist. “I knew of the ride, and I knew it would be a great thing for Kenyon,” Kohlman said.

Though he had been riding for eight years, Kohlman had never heard of John Looker until the news broke out. He expressed disbelief at the lies and Looker’s story. “I just can’t understand at all how somebody would hatch a plan like that and start telling people, their friends … People do crazy things, right?”

Though there is only one more year left in the agreement between Gambier and Pelotonia, Kohlman hopes that the town will continue to act as the finish line in the future. “This wasn’t a Pelotonia scandal; it was a John Looker scandal,” said Kohlman. “Our relationship with Pelotonia has nothing to do with that.”

In early August, The New York Times released an article on John Looker titled “He Was the Face of a Bike-a-thon to Fight Cancer. He Was Also a Fake” written by Abby Ellin, a regular contributor to the paper and author of the book Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married. She came across the story through a friend in Columbus who heard rumors that Looker had been faking his illness. In the early stages of her researched Ellin reached out to Looker directly. “I tried for months, trying to talk to him, but he didn’t want to talk. Then I tried talking to the people in Pelotonia, but it took them months to answer me, they weren’t taking calls and the spokesperson wouldn’t answer any questions,” Ellin said. 

Ellin spoke with dozens of victims who felt betrayed by Looker. “I had to be very sensitive,” Ellin said, “because they felt like idiots … I understand [their feelings]. You wouldn’t expect anybody to do this—because, I mean, why would they?”

Over his decade-long deception, Looker embezzled $1,000, which he had earned for Pelotonia in a garage sale. According to Ellin, Looker claimed that he was “strapped for cash.” She speculates that his motive was largely emotional. “I think he did it from a place of gross insecurity,” she said. “He wanted the attention — he was a rockstar in town, people adored him. It gave him status and purpose.” 

The attorney general’s office announced a settlement in which Looker cannot volunteer or work at another charitable organization in Ohio, and he agreed to pay $2,000 in a civil fine plus $1,800 for the money he embezzled. However, the police did not pursue legal action, and he was not charged with a crime.

According to Ellin, his future is not in serious danger. “This is America,” she said. “He’ll be fine.”

 

In the Collegian’s orientation issue, journalist Abby Ellin was quoted as saying “…I tried talking to the people in Pelotonia, [but] they weren’t taking calls and the spokesperson wouldn’t answer any questions.” This quote was taken out of context. While it did take some time for Ellin to get in contact with the charity, she eventually conducted several interviews, and various Pelotonia officials are quoted in her article. The quote has been extended to more accurately reflect Ellin’s experience. 

 

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