Theresa Erickson's reputation as a leading reproductive law specialist eased the concerns of surrogate mothers and intended parents who were desperate to have children.
But prosecutors say that trust also let her lure couples into a baby-selling scam that netted millions of dollars by dealing in genetically desirable babies conceived in Ukraine by anonymous donors and carried by surrogates.
"These were criminals that were creating human life for sale," said surrogacy attorney Andrew Vorzimer, who represented 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."
Erickson, a 44-year-old attorney, was expected to be sentenced Friday in federal court in San Diego. She could face up to five years in prison.
Erickson built her clientele by writing books and speaking on TV about fertility issues. In California's thriving surrogacy industry, she managed to persuade couples to pay up to $150,000 for each child, federal prosecutors say.
The aspiring parents believed they were adopting legally by entering into an arrangement with a surrogate mother before the pregnancy.
In fact, Erickson was working with surrogate Carla Chambers and respected Maryland attorney Hilary Neiman to line up parents for babies that had already been created by sending U.S. surrogates to Ukraine to be implanted with sperm and embryos from anonymous donors, prosecutors say.
Vorzimer said no one knows how many babies were created that way, 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 pleaded guilty to fraud and acknowledged filing false applications for the surrogates to California's state insurance program to subsidize the medical costs of the deliveries.
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 in prison 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, which has become the hub of the surrogate industry because of its progressive laws regulating the practice. Other states ban surrogacy outright.
Heather Albaugh, a surrogate from the Dallas area, said she was among those 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 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 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 and helped with the investigation. She will be asking the judge Friday to require Erickson and Chambers to 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, she said.
She gave birth in 2010 and a couple she had befriended has since legally adopted the child.
Albaugh remains close to the family, visiting them regularly. She said that is the bright spot in the situation, 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."
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