March 30, 2012
It’s a case involving a baby-selling ring, two prominent attorneys, and a third woman.
Mollie Halpern: It’s a case involving a baby-selling ring, two prominent attorneys, and a third woman.
Jeffrey Veltri: This was probably the most depraved set of facts we’ve ever come across.
Halpern: I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau, and this is Inside the FBI.
Coming up, hear from one of the case agents who investigated the baby-selling ring…
Veltri: It was a trying case. It was emotionally challenging because you got incensed when you realized what was going on.
Halpern: …how the three co-conspirators carried out the scam…
Veltri: She lied repeatedly to both myself and my partner with regard to one of the surrogacy situations, claiming she knew nothing about it, claiming she did not know who the gestational carrier was…
Halpern: …and what led to the break in the case.
Veltri: The case really came to a head when we learned that one of the surrogates was in San Diego to deliver.
Halpern: First, we take a look at what surrogacy is and how it legitimately works. A surrogacy is an arrangement, which sometimes involves payment, between intended parents and a surrogate who agrees to carry an embryo to term. A traditional surrogacy is when the surrogate and her egg is fertilized through artificial insemination with the sperm of the intended father. In gestational surrogacy, the carrier has no biological connection to the child.
In California, where this investigation happened, the law states a contract must be finalized between the carrier and the intended parents before a pregnancy takes place.
In this case, the three conspirators lied to surrogates, saying their process of matching parents to unborn children operated differently—but that it wasn’t illegal. Since one of the women, Theresa Erickson, was considered one of the most renowned attorneys in the area of surrogacy law, the surrogates had no reason not to believe the lies. Another conspirator, Carla Chambers, of Las Vegas, recruited surrogates and told them that the child they’d carry would be matched with prospective parents in the 12th week of pregnancy. She said they would be paid between $35,000 and $38,000 for their services. Then, she’d send them to Ukraine to get implanted with embryos of anonymous donors. Supervisory Special Agent Jeffrey Veltri says investigation revealed that parents for the children weren’t found until 24 weeks—and in some cases as late as 33 weeks—into pregnancies. That’s when, through medical science, a baby is viable outside of the womb.
Veltri: So she wasn’t really selling the services of the woman who was carrying the child to term, she was selling a child. So what would end up happening is, at around week 24, the women who were carriers were starting to get desperate because “Oh my God, I haven’t been matched with parents. What’s going to happen if I deliver soon? Am I going to be responsible for the baby?”
Halpern: At that point, Hilary Neiman, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, would take over the scam. She’d use adoption websites to find desperate people looking for a surrogate or who wanted to adopt. Then, Agent Veltri says, she’d sell them a bill of goods….
Veltri: And what she would say is, “I’m aware of a surrogacy situation that’s gone bad,” and she would tell some intended parents that one of the original intended parents died. Or they decided to change their mind, it’s a horrible situation, they backed out…
Halpern: And now there’s this baby…
Veltri: …and now there’s this baby that needs a home. So, it’s almost like this white knight pitch that she would make.
Halpern: Neiman would make the intended parents sign contracts and charge them an average of $165,000.
Veltri: Essentially documents saying they were assuming all of the responsibilities and costs from the original intended parents. I will say, the non-existent original intended parents.
Halpern: The co-conspirators would pocket the money. Meanwhile, surrogates weren’t getting the payments they had been promised.
Veltri: They were essentially held hostage, because they weren’t paid continuously along the way. So they had to eat ultrasound costs, they had to eat all of these costs along the way.
Halpern: When the surrogates were ready to deliver, they were flown to San Diego. This is when Theresa Erickson would request the San Diego Superior Court to issue a pre-birth order, which would transfer the parental rights from the surrogates to the intended parents. A requirement for this motion is proof of the contract I spoke about earlier—the one that says the carrier and the intended parents reached an agreement about the surrogacy before the pregnancy took place.
Veltri: Every one of her filings were riddled with fraudulent, false declarations to San Diego Superior Court, leading the judge, who would read these motions, to believe that the intended parents contracted in with the surrogate to then form this baby.
Halpern: Erickson exploited the fact that the San Diego Superior Court often issued the paperwork without a hearing and without the parties present.
Veltri: It was just a matter of submitting the forms, the paperwork would be signed, the orders would be issued, and it would be done. There would be no judge questioning the parties as to the legitimacy of the arrangement.
Halpern: But there were questions…not from a judge, but from a surrogate suspicious of the women’s process. That surrogate took her suspicions to a reproductive attorney, who then called the FBI. Agents Veltri and his partner, Bradlee Godshall, began to uncover the conspirator’s scheme.
Veltri: One of the surrogates came into town; she was due to deliver, And we approached her. And we asked her if she’d be willing to assist us in our investigation. Throughout the course of her surrogacy, she felt like she was getting the run around, so she was very willing to help us.
Halpern: The surrogate and another cooperating witness helped the agents gather incriminating statements of two of the women. That’s when the case really began to take off…
Veltri: We began to do consensually recorded conversations. That got us Hilary Neiman. And that took us a long way to getting us toward Carla Chambers—who incidentally has served as a surrogate in her own criminal enterprise, probably seven times. Theresa Erickson’s part was where we got her—predominately the illegal filing, but she was also involved in wire transfers of proceeds of the illegality.
Halpern: In addition to the more sophisticated investigative tools, the agents also searched for evidence in tens of thousands of e-mails.
Veltri: We probably read close to 100,000 e-mails. These are e-mails between Carla Chambers and the gestational carriers and between the gestational carries and Hillary Neiman and between the intended parents and Hillary Neiman and Carla Chambers.
Halpern: The investigation came to a close in December 2010—just six or so months after it began.
Veltri: It had to move very quickly because quite honestly, we reached a point where we simply couldn’t allow it to go on. We didn’t want to see any more of this stream of manufacturing of babies to continue. And, we had good intelligence that was suggesting that Carla Chambers was taking new women over to Ukraine and was also actively trying to affiliate herself with a clinic in Greece. So, we felt it was time.
Halpern: In February, Erickson, Chambers, and Neiman were sentenced to five months in prison. They also received home confinement, supervised release, and ordered to pay hefty fines. Veltri says the women victimized everyone from the surrogates to the parents to the children.
Veltri: If you asked one of those intended parents when they had a child in their hand whether they’d do it all over again, of course. But if you ask them right when they were sold the bill of goods on the operation, “Hey this is an illegal operation that you’re involving yourself in. There are no intended parents. Do you still want to go through with this?” They would obviously say, “Absolutely not.” The real victims in this case are the children that ended up becoming the product of this illegal enterprise, because these children don’t know who their biological parents are. Our investigation was unable to identify who the sperm and egg donors were for any of the pregnancies. So they have lost all of their biological identity.
Halpern: Veltri says there is one positive aspect to this case.
Veltri: These children could have gotten into the hands of monsters, people out there that are just buying children to prey on children. And our investigation did not reveal that at all, thankfully. We have no reason to believe that these children aren’t in good homes with good parents—which was the silver lining in an otherwise horrific set of circumstances, which was reassuring to the investigative team.
Halpern: As a result of this case, the San Diego Superior Court now requires parties to be present before issuing pre-birth orders. The court was cooperative with the investigation.
I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau, and you’ve been listening to Inside the FBI.
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