SANTIAGO, Chile — Facing a dozen lawsuits and a criminal probe into his activities at UC Irvine's Center for Reproductive Health, Dr. Jose P. Balmaceda sold his Corona del Mar home last summer and boarded a plane to his native Chile, calling the trip a visit to his ailing mother.
But the besieged fertility expert--who fled the Chilean military junta two decades ago--has come home. And despite his bruised U.S. reputation, his presence in this city of 4.2 million is playing more like the bittersweet return of the prodigal son.
His lawyer has said Balmaceda will return to the United States "when he is ready," but investigators are doubtful.
Balmaceda, accused with his partners of egg-swapping without patients' consent and financial wrongdoing at the UC Irvine clinic, is already booked solid with patients at a prestigious clinic nestled near the Andes Mountains.
His family is settled in a house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Balmaceda, 47, has not been formally hired at Clinica Las Condes but is working as a consultant from an office built for him in 1993 by colleagues hoping to lure home the man they hail as the father of Chilean reproductive medicine.
Despite the accolades, his tainted return comes at a delicate time for the country's nascent field of fertility medicine, now facing the prospect of regulation in the conservative Chilean legislature. Even if Balmaceda is eventually cleared, his colleagues say, he drags the UC Irvine scandal to Chile at the worst of all possible times.
"There are people who believe that it's better that this whole [scandal] stays buried," said Dr. Ricardo Pommer, who practices at the competing Clinica Las Nieves. "This might make the Chilean law much too restrictive. We are worried."
Balmaceda left Orange County this summer while officials from at least seven agencies were investigating him and his partners, Dr. Ricardo Asch and Dr. Sergio Stone. He sold his home and later put his wife and two youngest children on a plane bound for Chile. The couple's two oldest children have chosen to remain in the United States.
More than two months ago, Balmaceda applied to join the staff of Las Condes clinic, one of only five in Chile that offer assisted fertilization. His application is within days of final acceptance and secretaries at the clinic have penned a long waiting list of patients anticipating his return to practice, said Dr. Fernando Zegers Hochschild, head of the unit for reproductive medicine and one of Balmaceda's closest friends from medical school.
"We're not the FBI. We aren't an investigative body, we don't have anything to do with internal tax issues in the United States," the clinic's medical director, Dr. Jaime Manalich Muxi, said last week. "All we know is we have an application from a man who is famous, who is an expert in fertility all over the world. We have to evaluate what the overall effect will be of having him join the clinic."
Balmaceda, known as Pepe to friends, grew up with six sisters, the son of a timber mill owner. In 1967, he entered the Catholic University Medical School along with Zegers, and the pair later won residencies at the University of Chile's clinical hospital.
At 23, Balmaceda married Veronica Pascal, but family ties and the political tumult of his country were about to deal him a blow that would send him into exile.
Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a brutal coup in 1973 that overthrew the socialist Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, resulting in Allende's apparent suicide and the deaths of thousands of his supporters.
To the left of Allende's party was the guerrilla Leftist Revolutionary Movement. Among its leaders: Andres Pascal Allende, a nephew of Salvador Allende and the cousin of Balmaceda's wife. It was Balmaceda's decision to harbor his wife's militant relative at his home that brought the country's military police looking for him in 1975.
According to friends and an account that Balmaceda gave to a Chilean magazine last summer, intelligence agents came to the hospital looking for him and Balmaceda made a dash for the service stairs. For two months, he and his wife hid at the homes of friends, eventually seeking refuge in the Venezuelan Embassy and landing at the University of Texas a year later.
There, Balmaceda met Asch, and in 1984 the duo pioneered the fertilization technique called GIFT--or "gamete intra-Fallopian transfer"--a procedure in which eggs and sperm are implanted into the Fallopian tubes, where conception occurs naturally.
UC Irvine and Stone lured the well-known pair west two years later and they set up a clinic with Stone in Garden Grove. By 1990, the trio launched the Center for Reproductive Health.