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Fugitive in UCI fertility clinic scandal held in Mexico

A physician who rocked a UC Irvine fertility clinic 15 years ago, when he and a partner switched the frozen embryos of dozens of unsuspecting women, is being held in Mexico City as U.S. officials race a deadline to extradite him to face criminal charges.

Ricardo Asch, one of two fertility doctors who fled prosecution as the scandal in Orange County unfolded, was arrested in Mexico City on Nov. 3, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. He remains in custody as U.S. prosecutors seek to extradite him to Southern California to face federal mail fraud and tax evasion charges.

It’s not clear how and precisely where Mexican authorities caught up with the doctor, who has been living and practicing medicine in Buenos Aires. For years, U.S. officials have listed him as a wanted fugitive in postings shared with the international law enforcement community, he said.

Federal prosecutors have until Jan. 3 to forward an extradition petition and are expected to meet the deadline by filing papers this week, Mrozek said.

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If the extradition request is approved, Asch could be returned to the United States next year, he said. “It’s our goal to see that justice is done,” he said.

Asch has long denied wrongdoing and has dodged extradition efforts in the past.

The Orange County Register broke the news in 1995, reporting that Asch and Jose Balmaceda, his partner at UC Irvine’s Center for Reproductive Health, had stolen eggs and embryos for years and given them to other women.

The news rocked the university and roiled the lives of dozens of families unwittingly caught up in the deceit. Weeks of revelations sparked international news coverage, investigations and state hearings and tainted the university, which whistle-blowers said had ignored early warnings and tried to cover up problems.

At the time, it was not illegal to appropriate human tissue. But auditors examining the clinic’s books found that Asch and Balmaceda had not reported $1 million in billings, triggering the fraud and tax evasion charges.

Both fled as they awaited prosecution. A third physician, Sergio Stone, was convicted in 1997 of fraudulently billing insurance companies. He was fined $50,000 and ordered to serve a year of home detention. No evidence linked Stone to the egg thefts.

After leaving the U.S., Asch lived in Mexico City and practiced fertility medicine at several clinics and opened a restaurant with a former soccer player. He later moved to Buenos Aires, where he continued to practice fertility medicine.

At least 15 births resulted from the improper egg transfers. Those babies would now be young adults and teenagers, but it’s unknown whether any of them have attempted to contact their genetic parents.

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A San Diego couple, Steve and Shirel Crawford, said in a 2009 interview they

believe their embryos were given to a woman who gave birth to a boy and a girl in two separate pregnancies while Shirel Crawford — out of money and embryos — never had a baby.

“I don’t think it will ever be over,” Shirel Crawford said at the time. “Our children are still out there somewhere,” Shirel Crawford . Maybe someday they will find us.”

Shirel Crawford, now 51, said her hopes of giving birth to a child faded long ago. Three in-vitro attempts failed the couple suffered another heartbreak when the daughter they were attempting to adopt was reclaimed by the birth mother.

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Eight years ago, they adopted a daughter, Shelby, who Crawford said brings them great happiness. Crawford couldn’t be reached for comment on Asch’s arrest.

A federal court in Argentina allegedly tried Asch on similar fraud charges and he was acquitted, according to his lawyer, Eliel Chemerinski. To return him to the United States to face the same charge would constitute “double jeopardy,” Chemerinski argues in a court filing opposing extradition.

UC Irvine has paid more than $27 million to settle at least 140 lawsuits filed as a result of the fertility clinic scandal.

catherine.saillant@latimes.com


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