Napa Police, FBI investigate fraud at Yunona adoption firm; victims continue to emerge
By DAVID RYAN, Register Staff Writer
More than 90 families across the country were duped by defunct Napa adoption firm Yunona USA for total losses of more than $750,000, according to local police.
Those allegations are part of a widening probe into the actions of Yunona. Napa Police said they met Thursday with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and plan to cooperate together as authorities continue to chase down the path of thousands of dollars collected by the firm.
Would-be adoptive parents charge Yunona lured them into fronting the money for adoptions by showing them pictures of international children on Internet Web sites. The children were never available for adoption.
The business closed last month under pressure from a Jan. 9 court injunction, the same day Napa County District Attorney's office filed a more than $1 million civil lawsuit against Yunona leader Ivan Jerdev and two of his former employees. Late last month, Russian news agencies reported Jerdev was arrested in his native Russia as part of what Russian authorities called a child trafficking ring.
A "victim newsletter" sent out Jan. 29 by Napa Police Det. Ron Appel to scores of Yunona victims said Napa police are preparing to file criminal charges, including a possible mail fraud indictment through federal prosecutors. Police are also planning to ask Russian authorities to extradite Jerdev to the United States.
Appel claimed interviews led him to believe that Yunona had been involved in bilking victims for the last two years of its 10-year existence.
"I believe that Yunona USA was using adoption money from victims to pay off and settle other claims of previous clients," Appel wrote. "This is commonly called a Ponzi scheme. My investigation has revealed that for at least six months prior to the Napa Police Department's search warrants being served on Yunona, Yunona knew that it was financially broke and had contemplated shutting down. However, Ivan Jerdev rejected this and continued to solicit and receive money."
Napa Police Sgt. Tim Cantillon said Appel contacted Interpol about the case, but has yet to receive a response. Meanwhile, victims are yielding more ammunition for criminal charges.
"Daily we're getting documents from people across the country," Cantillon said, adding few new victims have been found since Appel sent out the newsletter.
In his newsletter, Appel said his investigation was the second time American authorities had tried to build a case against Yunona.
"Although the FBI and the U.S. Attorney General's office in San Francisco have been aware of Yunona's conduct, a case for prosecution was not strong enough to take to a grand jury for review and possible indictments," Appel wrote.
A review of public documents surrounding the case revealed the Napa County District Attorney's office knew of serious complaints against Yunona as early as 2003, but took no action against the firm. Deputy District Attorney Daryl Roberts has said the office forwarded complaints to the FBI, which later dropped the case without alerting Napa authorities. Federal prosecutors declined comment on specifics regarding Yunona.
After a Florida woman filed a complaint with local police in November 2005, Appel opened an investigation, leading to a Dec. 21 raid of Yunona's former offices on 1612 Jefferson Street and Jerdev's Napa home.
Jerdev is also facing mounting legal troubles in civil court. On Wednesday, Maryanne Fournier of Haverhill, Mass., filed a civil suit against Jerdev and Yunona, in part seeking the repayment of nearly $18,000 she gave to the company in 2004 to adopt a Ukrainian girl.