SAN DIEGO - A federal judge sentenced an internationally renowned surrogacy lawyer Friday to five months in prison and nine months of home confinement for her role in a baby-selling scheme that prosecutors say spanned two continents and netted millions of dollars.
With her guilty plea, Theresa Erickson acknowledged that she and two other women used numerous surrogate mothers to create an inventory of unborn babies that they would sell for more than $100,000 each, federal prosecutors said.
U.S. surrogates were sent to be impregnated in the Ukraine with embryos from anonymous donors. When the women were in their second trimester, Erickson and her conspirators offered the babies to prospective parents, telling them the developing fetuses were the results of legal surrogacy arrangements in which the original parents backed out.
Erickson used her fame as a leading reproductive law specialist to win the trust of both the surrogates and intended parents, prosecutors said.
During sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Bataglia said Erickson caused a "parade of tragedy" that included stress on surrogates who learned late in their pregnancies that there were no parents for their unborn children.
One surrogate mother, Kimberly Schooley, told the judge she miscarried and was forced to name and cremate the child by herself. Under a legal arrangement, the judge pointed out, the surrogate mother would have had the support of the prospective parents.
Bataglia called the 44-year-old Erickson the ringleader who used her knowledge to work the system in California - the hub of the surrogacy industry - and to dodge its progressive laws designed to protect surrogate mothers, prospective parents and babies. She also tainted the birth stories of the babies, he said.
"I am still offended by a lawyer that would manipulate the laws," Bataglia said, adding that her case suggested more laws are needed.
The parents and surrogates were unaware of the scam, prosecutors said.
Erickson cried throughout Friday's hearing and told the judge: "I truly lost my way." She and Chambers apologized to the surrogate mothers in the courtroom.
"I want to personally tell you that I know I have done horribly wrong," she told the judge.
After the sentencing, the still-sobbing Erickson hugged Heather Albaugh, a surrogate from the Dallas area.
"I forgive her for what she did because she owned up to the fact that she had committed a crime and she was remorseful," Albaugh said after the sentencing.
Albaugh said she was disappointed the women were not given the maximum sentence for sullying a wholesome industry but was happy they will go to jail.
Bataglia also ordered Erickson to pay a $70,000 fine. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in a deal that called for 14 months of home confinement.
Bataglia also sentenced co-defendant Carla Chambers to five months in prison and seven months of home confinement. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions derived from unlawful activity. Chambers, a former surrogate, recruited the surrogates, prosecutors said.
Both women had faced up to five years in prison.
The two worked alongside respected Maryland attorney Hilary Neiman, who was sentenced in December to one year in custody that included five months in prison and the rest under home confinement. She pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Erickson built her clientele by writing books and speaking on TV about fertility issues.
She acknowledged fraudulently representing in court documents that the surrogacy arrangements were legitimate, which allowed the conspirators to profit from the sale of parental rights, prosecutors say. She also acknowledged filing false applications for the surrogates to California's state insurance program to subsidize the medical costs of the deliveries.
"These were criminals that were creating human life for sale," said surrogacy attorney Andrew Vorzimer, who represented Albaugh and another surrogate who 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 were created during the scheme, and important genetic information for the infants may have been lost forever.
"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."
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. "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.
Then Albaugh discovered from one of the outside attorneys that Erickson and the others were under investigation by the FBI. She immediately volunteered to help with the investigation.
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 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."