Dr. Ricardo Asch, the world-renowned fertility specialist who became the central figure in the alleged theft of eggs and embryos from UCI Medical Center patients 10 years ago, is fighting extradition to the U.S. while he continues working in Argentina, according to federal authorities.
Asch, a native of Argentina, is living with a nephew and brother in a two-story chalet surrounded by security guards 24 hours a day in an affluent neighborhood of Buenos Aires, according to a report in the Perfil newspaper last weekend. He continues to treat patients.
Asch and his partner, Dr. Jose Balmaceda, fled the country after being accused in 1995 of taking eggs and embryos from patients at the Center for Reproductive Health without their knowledge and implanting them in women unable to give birth. The women who received them thought the embryos were willingly donated, prosecutors allege. Some of them gave birth.
The doctors were indicted the following year on mail fraud, conspiracy and other charges. The scandal generated international coverage, investigations, state Senate hearings and 128 settlements totaling about $22 million.
It tainted the university, which ignored warnings and tried to cover up problems. Litigation in the case is continuing, and UCI has acknowledged not contacting nearly 30 women whose eggs were allegedly stolen.
A third doctor in the clinic, Sergio C. Stone, was convicted in 1997 of fraudulently billing insurance companies. He was fined $50,000 and ordered to serve a year of home detention. He was fired by UC Irvine, but no evidence linked him to the egg thefts. He lives in Villa Park.
“It is my great hope these guys will be brought to justice before I retire,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Wayne Gross, who handled the Stone trial and remains the prosecutor on the case. Balmaceda fled to Chile. He was arrested entering Argentina in 2001, but disappeared after being released on bail and remains at large.
Asch’s U.S. lawyer, Ron Brower, said he had no information about his client’s whereabouts. As recently as last month, UCI had no idea Asch had been apprehended in 2004.
Asch lived in Mexico City after he left the U.S., practicing fertility medicine at two clinics and becoming a partner in an Argentine restaurant there with an actor, Saul Lisazo, and a former soccer player, Mario Favaretto.
Argentine authorities detained Asch when he arrived at the airport in Ezeiza on a flight from Mexico on Aug. 6, 2004, U.S. and Argentine officials said. He was released the next day after posting bond of 25,000 pesos (about $8,000). An Argentine court ordered Asch extradited to the U.S., but he appealed the decision last March. There has been no ruling.
Though he was ordered to appear in court every 15 days, a federal judge loosened the restrictions to require his appearance only once a month, based on good conduct, according to an Argentine court official. He also was ordered to surrender his Argentine passport and remain in the country. “The extradition process is still underway in that country,” said Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI.
Extradition can drag on for years. “The idea is that under these treaties, the country that holds him has to make a determination whether he is wanted in the U.S. for something that is a crime in their country as well,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Loyola Law School. “That could be a sticking point in a case like this.”
Asch has insisted he is innocent. “If I would have done any of those things they tell me I did, it was to make someone happy,” Asch recently told Mary Dodge, coauthor of “Stealing Dreams: A Fertility Clinic Scandal.” “To help a baby be born. To have a family. That was the motive.”
Dodge, who interviewed Asch twice in Mexico City, said the doctor had not seemed afraid to face the charges.
“But I think he felt it was this shadow that was haunting him. He had settled into life there, with his family and his practice, still traveled a great deal. He had moved forward.”
Times staff writer Kimi Yoshino and researcher Andres D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.