By: JULIE WATSON (The Associated Press)
SAN DIEGO — 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 do 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."