Theresa Erickson is set to be sentenced Friday in San Diego federal court. (Howard Lipin / Associated…)
Reporting from San Diego -- Poway attorney Theresa Erickson was a star in the complex, competitive, and sometimes lucrative business of helping childless couples adopt babies.
She was a frequent guest on national TV shows; she self-published a book on "assisted reproduction," and she presented herself on her website as a tireless, fearless advocate for adoption. Eager to expand her business, she was looking to attract gay clients.
A different Erickson will appear for sentencing Friday in San Diego federal court: an admitted felon, the alleged ringleader behind an international scheme to pay surrogates to carry embryos to term so the babies could be placed with couples throughout the United States.
The scheme violated laws requiring a prior agreement between a surrogate and what the law calls "intended parents" before implantation, according to prosecutors. The rules are meant to prevent the creation of an inventory of babies to be "shopped."
In August, Erickson, 45, pleaded guilty to wire fraud, knowing she could be sentenced to five years in prison. Two co-defendants also pleaded guilty.
As part of her plea bargain, Erickson signed court documents saying the surrogates were paid $38,000 to $45,000, and the couples were sometimes charged more than $100,000. In the same documents, Erickson admits that she filed phony birth certificates and health insurance forms. Prosecutors accuse her of building "an efficient business model that kept costs to a minimum."
It seemed as if the case had been concluded without undue rancor: In exchange for a guilty plea, prosecutors would recommend home detention instead of prison, although that decision is left to the judge.
But as sentencing has approached, Erickson's attorney has launched an attack on the U.S. attorney, the federal probation office, and the local media, starting with the prosecutors' characterization of the case as "baby-selling" rather than wire fraud.
The result of the prosecutor's actions, attorney Ezekiel Cortez said in a document filed with the federal court, has been to produce a "mob mentality" that could lead U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia to sentence his client more harshly than was imagined when Erickson signed her plea agreement.
Based on interviews with prosecutors, the local media produced "an onslaught of negative and misinformed media coverage" that puts Erickson at "an unfair disadvantage" at sentencing, according to the same document.
Cortez declined to comment, which an aide said is consistent with his policy of never talking to reporters. The federal prosecutors also declined.
But in pre-sentencing documents, prosecutors said Erickson has shown no remorse, tried to shift blame to her co-defendants, and continued to insist that she was only trying to help desperate couples start families.
Within hours of signing a plea agreement on Aug. 9, Erickson posted a "defiant statement on Facebook that contradicted her guilty plea made under oath," prosecutors said.
"I have never taken advantage of parents, children, donors or surrogates who otherwise would remain vulnerable to the underbelly of this industry," the statement read. "I live my life by doing the right things for the right reasons and sometimes you just have to do what is right."
Prosecutors have not sought to nullify any of the adoptions nor to charge surrogates with knowingly participating in the scheme.
Erickson's attorney wrote that the surrogates "who mysteriously escaped prosecution … also profited from their integral, key role in this conspiracy."
At the same court session Friday, one of Erickson's co-defendants, Carla Chambers, 52, of Las Vegas, is also set to be sentenced.
Chambers, who was convicted of a similar surrogacy scheme in New Zealand, has admitted that she sought out young women willing to go to Ukraine to have an embryo implanted and then return to California to give birth. She pleaded guilty to receiving money from an illegal act.
Prosecutors say Chambers and Erickson began their business arrangement in 2005. Court documents mention a dozen adoptive couples nationwide. Many were told by Erickson that another couple had agreed to adopt the child but had backed out, making the child available to them.
In 2008, a second attorney was recruited by Erickson to find clients. Maryland resident Hilary Neiman, 32, also pleaded guilty to wire fraud and in December was sentenced to five months in prison and seven months of home confinement.
Neiman surrendered her law license after the Maryland bar opened an investigation that could have led to her license being revoked, according to her attorney.
Documents show that the same could happen in California to Erickson, who once gave courses in creating a "niche" legal practice and advertised herself as an expert in "an area of law where it matters most."