Leader of Napa adoption agency may be under arrest
By DAVID RYAN, Register Staff Writer
Russian authorities have apparently detained Ivan Jerdev, the owner of Napa-based adoption firm Yunona USA, and will likely charge him with fraud and illegal disclosure of confidential information, Russian news agencies reported Wednesday.
More than a dozen would-be adoptive parents across the United States allege Yunona engaged in bait-and-switch tactics to convince them to spend thousands of dollars to adopt children from around the world. The couples later found out the children were never available, and then could not get refunds from Yunona.
The Napa County District Attorney filed a civil suit against Yunona and two former employees on Jan. 9, seeking damages that could exceed $1 million. Prosecutors also won a court injunction ordering the closure of Yunona the same day. Napa police are investigating possible criminal charges.
The Russian Internet daily Kommersant reported Wednesday that Ivan Zherdev, an alternative spelling for Jerdev, was detained by Russian authorities in connection with an investigation into his practices. The Moscow Times reported that Yunona's general director -- a person matching the title of Jerdev -- was detained. It also said that Yuga.ru, a news agency in Krasnodar, Russia, reported unnamed sources in the Krasnodar prosecutor's office identifying the director as Ivan Zherdev.
Krasnodar is a region in southern Russia where former Yunona employees say Jerdev frequently spends time. Now-defunct Yunona Web sites say Krasnodar is where Jerdev got his start as a businessman.
The Moscow Times said Jerdev could face up to six years in Russian prison if tried and convicted of fraud and releasing confidential information.
"Pretending to provide various services, this group was effectively engaged in trafficking in children," Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky reportedly said in a statement.
Yulia Vlasova, a spokeswoman for the Krasnodar prosecutor's office, told the Moscow Times Yunona's network of coordinators in Krasnodar bribed officials to illegally obtain information about orphaned children before that information showed up in Russian government adoption databases.
Yunona then posted the information on Web sites directed at prospective adoptive parents in America, who paid sometimes tens of thousands of dollars in hopes of adopting the children.
In the United States, e-mail records and interviews show Yunona employee Elina Valiev of Estero, Fla., continued to work with Yunona clients Rick and Olga Jorgensen of Greenwich, Conn. for more than a week after Yunona was ordered closed by a Napa judge on Jan. 9, never informing the Jorgensens of any legal trouble.
According to Daryl Roberts, Napa County Deputy District Attorney, the injunction doesn't apply to Valiev until she is legally served with it. The injunction ordered Yunona, Sims and "their agents, servants, employees, representatives" to cease operations.
Another former client couple in Hollister said Valiev urged them to continue their Yunona adoption as normal on Jan. 10, a day after the court injunction, but Valiev did not mention any problems with the company. The couple, who asked to remain anonymous, stopped the process after they read an article about Yunona on the Internet the next day.
Valiev's phone in Florida is disconnected, but two Yunona e-mail addresses she used to contact clients in the past two weeks were still operating Tuesday and Wednesday. Valiev did not return an e-mail request for comment.
According to former Yunona Vice President Nick Sims, Valiev ran the Napa office as a manager, directing employees and handling clients when Jerdev was away in Russia.
He said he told Valiev the company couldn't operate the week he signed the Napa court injunction on Jan. 6, a few days before the court formally ordered it.
"I know she knows because I had talked to her before the injunction," he said. "She said, 'Is this it? Can I talk to the parents anymore? Can I do this? Can I do that?' And I said, 'Nope.'"
Sims said he discussed the injunction with Valiev again the weekend of Jan. 13-15, when she visited Napa.
On Jan. 6 Valiev coached Rick Jorgensen on how to get his papers in order for the adoption, with no mention of any Yunona legal trouble. Later, on Jan. 17, she sent Rick and Olga Jorgensen a receipt for money he sent to a Ukrainian orphanage for a child's birthday party.
"Elina kept counseling us the same way our coordinator did in 2002 (for an earlier adoption) as if everything was perfectly normal," he said.
Jorgensen sent Yunona $5,000 in November 2005 and corresponded with Valiev frequently after Dec. 28. Jorgensen had no idea police had raided the business a few days before, but because he had successfully adopted a 13-year-old girl through Yunona in 2002, he said he had no reason to suspect Yunona would not come through again.
"Yunona did an effective job not only for us but at least four other parents ... but something changed," he said. "It was always problematic. It was emotional and difficult. Maybe it got to be too much for them."