SANTA ANA — Dr. Sergio C. Stone, one of three former partners in the fertility clinic that plunged UC Irvine into an international scandal involving human eggs and embryos, blew a kiss and waved to friends and relatives after a federal judge agreed Tuesday to release him from jail.
U.S. Judge Gary L. Taylor approved an agreement between Stone's attorneys and the federal government that will allow Stone to remain free on a $3-million bond, most of which is guaranteed by his supporters, until he is sentenced in March on nine counts of fraudulently billing insurance companies. Stone, 57, has been in the Santa Ana Jail since his Oct. 30 conviction.
"The defendant does not present a flight risk or a threat to his own safety or the community," Taylor said after granting the defense motion for Stone's release.
About three hours after the bail hearing, a smiling Stone walked out of the Santa Ana Jail and was met by a group of friends whom he referred to as his "angels." He also expressed gratitude to the judge.
"I'm pleased the judge allowed me to have my bail so I can have Christmas with my family," Stone said as he walked to a waiting car.
Under the terms of the agreement, Stone promised that he would not appeal his October conviction or seek a new trial. A jury acquitted him on 14 other charges, including tax evasion and conspiracy.
Although Stone faces a possible five-year sentence, federal prosecutors told the judge that they will seek a sentence of one year.
"We think it's an appropriate resolution to the sentencing of Dr. Stone," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Wayne Gross.
Taylor said Stone becomes much less of a flight risk now that it is known what type of sentence the federal government is seeking. His former partners, Drs. Ricardo Asch and Jose P. Balmaceda, left the country before charges were filed against them, and federal prosecutors are trying to get them extradited to the United States.
Stone's attorney, William Kopeny, said he will ask for a sentence between "zero and six months" and hopes his client will be sentenced only to probation. He said he is hopeful that if Stone does receive a 12-month sentence, at least half of it can be served in a halfway house or at home under house arrest.
Before he freed Stone, Taylor extensively questioned the group of supporters who agreed to guarantee $2 million of the bond. He wanted to make sure each was aware that they would have to pay the government in the event of a "worst case scenario."
"This is a very serious obligation," the judge told the group.
Group members insisted that they were not taking a risk by guaranteeing the bond because Stone had every intention of returning to court for his sentencing.
Outside the courtroom, longtime friend Dr. John Ryan said he is glad Stone would be released, but he said he believes the doctor is paying too high a price.
"I'm upset about the fact that he waived his rights," Ryan said. "He could have been vindicated. But the appeals process is so long, and it's already been a miserable three years."
Ryan, a resident of Villa Park, said Stone has had a difficult time behind bars.
"Jail time has been extremely hard on him," Ryan said. "He's a gentle type of person, and it's been a stress for him to be in jail."
The charges against Stone and the other doctors grew out of a massive investigation into allegations that human eggs and embryos were taken from some of the clinic's women patients and transplanted into other women or shipped to medical research laboratories without the donors' permission.