Dr. Ricardo Asch, who was being held in Mexico City for extradition to the… (Los Angeles Times )
Federal prosecutors were surprised to learn this week that Dr. Ricardo Asch, who was being held in Mexico City for extradition to the United States on charges stemming from a fertility clinic scandal that rocked UC Irvine and the world of reproductive medicine 16 years ago, has been freed from custody.
Informed of the release by The Times, officials said Tuesday they were seeking an explanation from Mexico about the handling the extradition.
"We still expect the authorities in Mexico to give full consideration to our request" to return Asch, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Douglas McCormick, the prosecutor on the case.
Asch, who headed the internationally acclaimed Center for Reproductive Health, fled the United States in 1995 amid allegations that he and his partner, Dr. Jose Balmaceda, took eggs and embryos from patients without their consent and gave them to other women. Balmaceda fled to his native Chile.
Described at the time as an unprecedented breach of medical ethics, the fertility fraud led to the live births of at least 15 children and lawsuits by couples whose lives were turned upside down by the revelations. The University of California, which was accused of trying to cover up the doctors' wrongdoing, has paid about $25 million to settle 140 lawsuits.
A fugitive since his indictment in 1997 on federal mail-fraud and tax-evasion charges, Asch had been held in Mexico since his arrest in November. Details of his detention were not made public, and U.S. prosecutors said they met a year-end deadline to file extradition papers.
Asch, who had revived his fertility practice in Buenos Aires after returning to his native Argentina years ago, trumpeted his release in a Facebook message dated March 15 and signed "ricardo."
"TODAY IS FREEDOM DAY … enjoy it with me please," the message read in Spanish and English.
The next day he posted another: "MANY THANKS to all that celebrated the triumph of justice and my freedom."
Terms of Asch's release were unclear Tuesday, including whether he posted a bond or was permitted to leave Mexico, a circumstance that would make his extradition to the U.S. all but impossible unless he chose to participate in the proceedings. His whereabouts could not be determined.
Contacted by e-mail, Asch declined to comment on his release. He has rarely granted interviews since the Orange County Register broke the scandal in May 1995, triggering international headlines, criminal charges and regulatory reforms.
His attorney, Eliel Chemerinski, did not respond to e-mail and voice messages.
This marks the government's second attempt to extradite Asch, whose UC Irvine fertility practice attracted couples from around the globe. Many paid tens of thousands of dollars for treatment by Asch, who gained prominence while still in his 30s for developing gamete intrafallopian tube transfer, a widely used fertilization technique known as GIFT. He later drove a red Ferrari with "DR. GIFT" personalized plates.
Asch has always denied wrongdoing, and in the scandal's wake he cast himself as a scapegoat for improper egg and embryo transfers made by his clinic subordinates, an allegation they scoffed at.
"I know it's not humble to say this, but the person who is heaviest makes the most noise when he falls," Asch told a reporter in 1996.
After leaving the U.S. in 1995, he set up a new fertility practice in an upscale area of Mexico City. In 2004, Argentine officials detained him when he arrived there on a flight from Mexico City but released him the next day after he posted bond of about $8,000.
In papers filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana last August, Chemerinski sought to dismiss the federal indictments, arguing that his client had been tried and acquitted of the charges in an Argentine court and that to prosecute him again would constitute double jeopardy. However, a federal judge reissued an arrest warrant for Asch after he was detained in Mexico City in November on an Interpol "red notice," clearing the way for his extradition.
Asch's former partner, Balmaceda, was arrested in Argentina in 2001 but thwarted U.S. efforts to extradite him when he posted bail and left the country.
A third partner in the UC Irvine fertility practice, Dr. Sergio Stone, was not implicated in the egg thefts and did not leave the U.S. He was convicted of mail fraud charges in a scheme to bill insurers for fertility treatments and was fined $50,000.