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Fugitive in UC Irvine fertility scandal arrested in Mexico City; U.S. hopes to extradite him

December 27, 2010 |  3:06 pm

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, has been taken into custody by Mexican authorities, officials said Monday.

Ricardo Asch, one of two fertility doctors who fled prosecution as the scandal 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. U.S. officials have for years 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 later this week, Mrozek said.

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

The Orange County Register broke news of the scandal 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 combing through 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, Asch to Argentina and Balmaceda to Chile. 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.

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.

A San Diego couple, Steve and Shirel Crawford, told CNN in 2006 that they believe they have a son that they have never met. He would be in his early 20s now.

Shirel Crawford, now 51, last year told the Times that her hopes of giving birth to a child faded long ago. Asch and Balmaceda made three failed in-vitro attempts with her, she said. Nine years ago, the couple suffered another heartbreak when the daughter they were attempting to adopt was reclaimed by the birth mother.

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 hiss 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 out more than $27 million to settle at least 140 lawsuits filed as a result of the fertility clinic scandal.

-- Catherine Saillant

Photo: Dr. Ricardo Asch in 1995. Credit:  Los Angeles Times