After years of struggling to have a child, Sylvia thought her heartache finally was over.
The Beverly Hills adoption attorney retained by the 41-year-old West Los Angeles resident and her husband called with good news: An Artesia couple, the woman eight months pregnant, was willing to have Sylvia and her husband adopt their child.
Sylvia and her husband met with the couple, drew up papers, and began paying them $1,250 a month for medical expenses and rent. But certain things didn't make sense, like expectant mother Kimberly Ussery's reluctance to see a doctor.
Sylvia talked with her adoption insurance agent, and Sylvia's lawyer made a few calls to colleagues. It didn't take long to find other people who said they had been promised Kimberly Ussery's baby--five other couples and a single mother, in fact, who allegedly paid an estimated $16,000 to Ussery and her boyfriend, David Roth, 21.
On Friday, Ussery, 21, pleaded not guilty to charges of adoption fraud and grand theft. David Keane Leavitt, Sylvia's lawyer, said that if the woman is convicted, she would be guilty of the biggest adoption scam he's seen in decades.
"It was devastating," said Sylvia, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy. "I can't think of a more personal affront."
Adoption scams, which rarely involve the number of victims alleged in the Ussery case, are "about as nasty a thing as you can do to people," Leavitt said. Other adoption experts agree.
"The saddest thing about it is it traffics in human emotions," said Jane Gorman, an adoption litigator in Orange County and San Francisco who is past president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "Adoption for almost everybody is the end of the line of an almost desperate need to have a family. They've gone through expensive and often difficult fertility treatments which have failed. They find a birth mother who's willing to have them and they start picturing the unborn baby in their nursery."
Jacki Brown was even musing over names for the child. After 10 years of struggling to adopt--even at one point traveling to war-torn Lebanon to see if any infants were available--Brown said she believed she had found the right mother when she was referred to Ussery by an adoption search firm in April.
Ussery said that after having four children before turning 21--and already putting one other up for adoption--she simply couldn't afford another child, according to Brown, 47, an Orange County lawyer. Ussery and Roth allegedly convinced Brown that they wanted her as the adoptive mother by showing her ultrasound pictures of the child and asking her to suggest names for the baby. They signed legal forms stating that they intended to give the child to Brown--forms identical to ones they signed with the six other parties, according to authorities.
Brown said she was hopeful, even though prior birth mothers had backed out on her and one even vanished after receiving support payments from her. "I've kind of been through the wringer," she said.
Ussery and Roth stayed in touch as Brown sent them more than $3,000 in support payments, which can legally be used to help the birth mother pay for rent, medical care, food and other necessities.
But Ussery and Roth were also promising the child to the other parties, authorities allege. All through the spring and summer, they allegedly added adoptive parents to the list. Sylvia and her husband came aboard July 6 after meeting Ussery and Roth at their Artesia home. "She had all the right cliche answers," Sylvia said.
Sylvia and her husband were elated and told family members that in six weeks they would finally have their baby.
The next day, Sylvia said, Ussery and Roth asked for their support payment. And when Ussery began backing out of an appointment Sylvia had scheduled for her with a doctor, Sylvia began her inquiries. Word of Ussery quickly spread in the small circle of adoption attorneys and insurers.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Det. Joe Pena said that Ussery was arrested Thursday at her home and that her three young children are now in friends' care. Roth was arrested earlier this week on a parole violation, the nature of which Pena said he did not know.
Ussery is being held in lieu of $10,000 bail at Twin Towers jail. Pena said Ussery told him she was simply looking for the right couple. Diane Michelson, an attorney who represented Brown in the adoption procedure, said she was surprised at the allegations. The lawyer described Ussery as a laissez-faire sort who usually was content letting the world pass her by.
"I didn't think she had it in her to pull it off," Michelson said of the alleged scheme.