SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Two women who orchestrated a scheme to sell babies for $100,000 each but failed to find parents for all of them were sentenced Friday to five months each in federal prison.
Theresa Erickson, a former Poway attorney who specialized in reproductive law, was also placed on nine months of home confinement and three years probation and fined $70,000 by U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Battaglia.
The 44-year-old pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud.
A Las Vegas nurse, Carla Chambers, will have to spend seven months at home after she gets out of prison and will serve three years probation.
Hilary Neiman, a Maryland lawyer, was sentenced in December to the same term as Chambers.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Merriman said the defendants arranged for women who needed money to become surrogate mothers and sent them to the
Ukraine to be implanted with embryos, then tried to match them up with couples desperate to have children.
The law requires for "gestational carriers" and prospective parents to be matched up before conception, Merriman said. He said parents had not been found for all the babies the defendants produced.
"The defendants took advantage of the victims when they were most vulnerable," Merriman said.
The surrogate mothers needed money, the couples wanted children and now the babies don't have families, he said.
The judge told Erickson that he was "offended" that she would engage in such activity.
"You put in motion a parade of tragedy," Battaglia said.
The lawyer apologized to the victims and acknowledged that she disgraced her family, friends and profession.
"I know I have done horribly wrong," Erickson said. "For many years I let my judgment be clouded, by ego or otherwise."
Chambers also apologized.
The baby-selling scheme operated from 2005 to last year and involved at least 11 infants, according to court records.
THIS IS A STORY UPDATE. For an earlier version, read below.
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Theresa Erickson's reputation as a leading reproductive law specialist eased the concerns of surrogate mothers and intended parents.
But prosecutors say being a trusted source also allowed her to lure them into unwittingly helping her build a baby manufacturing business spanning two continents that netted millions.
The 44-year-old attorney is expected to be sentenced Friday at a hearing in federal court in San Diego. She faces up to five years in prison.
Erickson, who authored books and spoke on TV about fertility issues, used California's thriving surrogacy business to find clients that she could convince to pay up to $150,000 for each baby, federal prosecutors say. The parents believed they were adopting legally by entering into an arrangement with a surrogate mother before the pregnancy.
In fact, Erickson working with a surrogate, Carla Chambers, and another respected Maryland attorney, Hilary Neiman, lined up parents for babies they had already created by sending U.S. surrogates to Ukraine to be implanted with sperm and embryos from anonymous donors, prosecutors say.
"These were criminals that were creating human life for sale," said surrogacy attorney Andrew Vorzimer, who represented the surrogates that helped blow the whistle on the scam. "Many people consider this to be a surrogacy arrangement gone awry. But this was not surrogacy in any shape or form."
Vorzimer said no one knows how many babies in total were created, and important genetic information for the infants may have been lost forever. The surrogates were also unaware of the scam, federal prosecutors say.
"They attempted to create the most marketable baby available, which was blond hair, blue-eyed baby, while simultaneously pulling on the heart strings of intended parents," Vorzimer said. "It defies description the immorality that was involved in this ongoing operation that went on for years."
Erickson has pleaded guilty to fraud and admitted to filing false applications for the surrogates to California's state insurance program to subsidize the medical costs of the deliveries of the babies. Chambers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions derived from unlawful activity and also will be sentenced Friday. She faces up to five years as well. Neither woman nor their attorneys could be reached for comment.
Neiman was sentenced in December to one year in custody that included five months in prison and the rest under home confinement.
The case has prompted greater scrutiny by judges in California, the industry's hub because of its progressive laws regulating the industry. Other states ban surrogacy outright.
Heather Albaugh, a surrogate from the Dallas area, said she was among those who were duped by the trio.
Albaugh said she was contacted by Chambers after posting an ad on a surrogacy website. She said she was new to the business and nervous about agreeing to be sent to Ukraine for an embryo transfer but then Chambers told her the agency was represented by Erickson and Neiman.
"These two attorneys were huge, they were on the up-and-up and considered to be household names in the surrogacy industry, so once she said that I let down my guard," Albaugh said.
Albaugh returned from Ukraine and was in her 18th week of pregnancy when she started calling other attorneys, alarmed that there still were no parents set up to adopt the child she was carrying. Chambers had told her twice that the clients they lined up had backed out at the last minute.
Albaugh discovered from one of the outside attorneys she called that Erickson and the others were under investigation by the FBI.
"My jaw hit the ground," she said. "But I immediately kicked into what I needed to do. I immediately got angry."
Albaugh called the FBI agent and helped with the investigation. She will be asking the judge Friday to require Erickson and Chambers pay her compensation.
She was promised $38,000 for carrying the child but received nothing, and feels she can never work again as a surrogate because her name has been tied to the scandal, although she was one of the victims, Albaugh said.
She gave birth in 2010 and a couple she had befriended has since legally adopted her.
Albaugh remains close to the family, visiting them regularly. She said that is the bright spot in all this, but she fears the day the girl asks questions about her birth.
"If she ever asks me any questions, I'll answer," Albaugh said. "But I'm sure there will be a time when she'll feel angry."
This is a story update. A previous story is below.
SAN DIEGO (CNS) - An attorney who was part of a group that orchestrated what prosecutors said was a baby-selling scheme is scheduled to be sentenced Friday at the federal courthouse in downtown San Diego.
Theresa Erickson, 44, who maintained a practice in Poway, was part of a small number of attorneys who specialized in reproductive law. She pleaded guilty last year to a conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Prosecutors said Erickson and others sold a dozen unborn babies to prospective parents for $100,000 each.
Hilary Neiman, a Maryland attorney, and Carla Chambers, a nurse from Las Vegas, also pleaded guilty in the case.
Neiman was sentenced in December to five months in federal prison and seven months in home confinement.
Prosecutors said the defendants recruited women to become impregnated in the Ukraine, then, as the pregnancies progressed, looked for potential parents.
Those potential parents were told that previous surrogate arrangements with other parents had fallen through and the new parents could step in for $100,000 or more, prosecutors said.
According to prosecutors, no parents had been lined up to take in the babies that the defendants were producing.
The baby-selling scheme operated from 2005 to last year and involved at least 11 babies, according to court records.