PERU'S PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1 ADOPTION SCANDAL HEIGHTS NATIVE IS FOCUS OF FUROR

Date: 1992-10-07

The Record (New Jersey)
Author: By LAURIE C. MERRILL, Record Staff Writer; The Record

In Peru, a land plagued by Shining Path guerrillas and cholera, a Hasbrouck Heights native has become Public Enemy No. 1.

Attorney James Gagel, 36, a former Fulbright scholar who arranged for dozens of American citizens to adopt Peruvian babies over the last two years, is the target of a police investigation into accusations that he kidnapped some of the children and falsified adoption records.

He's been in a Peruvian jail since February, even though no formal charges have been filed.

"I tell you, it's like being in a novel written by Kafka," Gagel said last week in a telephone interview from the San Jorge prison, where he says he is the only U.S. citizen being held. "These are blatantly false accusations. "

It's an international mystery highlighted by allegations of torture, police corruption, and baby-selling. The case has generated emotional debate in Peru, where the issue of adoption is as volatile as the abortion issue is in the United States. And Gagel has come to epitomize an unpopular figure: the foreigner who arranges for Peruvian babies to depart the nation.

"They've kept him in jail because it's a very controversial issue," said Royce Fichte, consul general of the U.S. Embassy in Peru. "It's a very, very hot potato. "

Gagel's case became an immediate tabloid sensation last winter. Several newspapers announced that he sold more than 4,000 Peruvian children, a charge Fichte calls nonsense. Another blared that Gagel may be the head of an international child kidnapping ring.

Still others proclaimed that Peruvian children might be sold in the United States for their organs, said Roseanna Echeandia, a reporter with El Comercio, Lima's largest daily. "But nobody has proved this," she said.

"That's just garbage," said Fichte, who added that the embassy has no position on Gagel's guilt or innocence.

In the meantime, police continue to investigate the case against Gagel a case that Gagel says was fabricated by the police because he refused to bribe them.

"Our position is that he certainly deserves better treatment," Fichte said. "He should be charged or set free, one or the other. "

Prior to moving to Peru in 1989 as a Fulbright scholar, Gagel lived in Rutherford and worked as a real estate lawyer for Hartmann, Brooks, Van Dam & Sinisi in Paramus. He grew up in Hasbrouck Heights. His father, now deceased, was the director of narcotics programs for Bergen County.

His mother, Mary Gagel, worked for the county clerk before retiring. She moved to Forked River 10 years ago. Last week, she recalled that she was surprised when her son told her he was going to Latin America. "I never thought of him as being very adventurous," she said.

In 1989, Gagel went to work for the Ministry of Justice in Peru, where he says he submitted constitutional and criminal law reform proposals.

A year later, he formed a partnership with a Peruvian attorney and began representing U.S. citizens who wanted to adopt Peruvian children. Peru has lenient adoption laws, allowing older and single adults to become parents.

Gagel was very successful, claiming he arranged about 40 adoptions in two years. "He was doing it very well. He was making money. He was taking a lot of work from Peruvian attorneys," said Fichte.

The adoption process in Peru is so rife with corruption that the U.S. State Department has issued an advisory about it. Court officers at all levels, even judges, are said to accept bribes to speed paperwork.

Thousands of Peruvian children are adopted by foreigners each year, Gagel estimates. In 1991, U.S. citizens adopted 705 Peruvian babies, according to the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. And Italian citizens adopt more children than Americans do.

But as more white foreigners are spotted wheeling brown babies in carriages through Lima's upscale Miraflores district, public sentiment has grown increasingly hostile, according to officials and reporters.

"A lot of people feel that it's morally wrong, that white people shouldn't be adopting Indian babies, and that if they are, it's only for nefarious reasons," said Fichte. "These people are very nationalistic. They don't like to see children leaving the country. "

Details of Gagel's service are sketchy. He says the children he placed for adoption were unwanted. But according to newspaper accounts, at least one mother claimed he took her baby. Gagel calls this absurd and said the baby was adopted with a judge's approval by a San Francisco couple.

Gagel did take some babies from their birth mothers and place them with foster families while United States citizens waited for the adoptions to become legal, which takes about three months, Fichte said. But those were babies the mothers wanted to abandon, Gagel said.

Fichte said there are allegations that Gagel paid the birth mothers money or tricked or coerced them into giving up the babies. There are other allegations that Gagel engaged in shady deals to obtain speedier adoptions.

El Comercio reported that Peruvian children are sold to U.S. parents for $15,000 to $17,000, Echeandia said. The Bureau of Consular Affairs estimates it costs parents an estimated $7,500 for the adoption process.

Feelings run high about Gagel in the United States, too. Several prospective adoptive parents claim he took their money, promised them children, then never delivered. He was arrested several months after allegedly accepting their cash.

"We gave him $11,000 in cash. We flew down there twice. We're still paying off $2,000 in phone bills," said Donna Smith of Blacksburg, Va., who wanted a boy and a girl. "We never got the babies. "

Smith said Gagel told her to bring a sewing machine with which to pay off the birth mother. She said he also endangered them by taking them to territories controlled by the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group.

Ronald Meltzer and Barbara Spiegel, a Manhattan couple, recount similar experiences. Like the Smiths, Meltzer and Spiegel held babies that Gagel said would be theirs when the paperwork cleared. Over several months, he requested more money while they waited for judges to approve the adoptions. They never got a baby.

"He ran an assembly line adoption agency. He brought people down in groups, we went to court in groups 1030168, he falsified documents in groups," Meltzer claimed. "It was awful. "

But others are pleased with Gagel, such as Fern Polaski of Philadelphia. "He made the most important connection in my life . . . a marvelous, magnificent, healthy baby girl," Polaski said.

The Spence-Chapin adoption agency in New York City also has high praise for Gagel, who helped the agency arrange 11 adoptions. In all but two cases, adopted mothers met the birth mothers, said Felicia Van Praagh, director of the agency's international adoptions.

For his part, Gagel claims he was set up by police because he refused to bribe them. He claims police harassed, threatened, and beat him, and detained and tortured his employees.

Charges in Peru are supposed to be filed in six months, yet Gagel has been held eight months without being charged, Fichte said. When asked why Gagel has not been charged, Maria Mere Espinoza, the presiding judge, said: "I have no opinion on whether he's been in jail for too long without being charged. "

The U.S. Embassy in Lima and the Bureau of Consular Affairs have monitored the case. Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, D-Englewood, has inquired on Gagel's behalf, as has Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Gagel, a Roman Catholic, says he has a lot of spiritual support. "The sisters of Mother Teresa visit me," he said. He is being treated well in prison, he says, and was recently made delegate for his wing of the 600-person prison.

His mother, meanwhile, hopes for the best and sends him money. "I pray for him every day," she said.

(CHART TEXT, PAGE a01)

FOREIGN BABIES ADOPTED

Figures from the State Department Bureau

of Consumer Affairs. Peruvian babies

adopted by U.S. citizens in each fiscal

year (Oct. 1 - Sept. 30).

PERUVIAN BABIES

1988 - 140

1989 - 222

1990 - 440

1991 - 705

Figures from Immigration and Naturalization

Service for foreign babies adopted in 1990.

KOREA - 2,603

COLOMBIA - 440

PHILIPPINES - 423

INDIA - 361

CHILE - 300

PARAGUAY - 285

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Pound Pup Legacy