Judge asks for more evidence in adoption agency fraud case
By DAVID RYAN, Register Staff Writer
Napa County prosecutors will have to come up with more proof in their effort to refund money to the victims of a now-defunct Napa adoption agency.
Napa Superior Court Judge Raymond Guadagni said Friday he wanted more evidence from prosecutors before he would enter a default judgment against Ivan Jerdev, former president of Yunona USA, accused of bilking more than $1.1 million from more than 100 victims across the country.
Prosecutors charge Jerdev took money from would-be adoptive parents without connecting them with children they expected to welcome into their families. Jerdev's company reached many of its clients through Internet sites on which it posted the pictures of children from eastern Europe and elsewhere that Yunona claimed were available for adoption.
As proof of the scheme, prosecutors submitted the sworn statement of Napa police detective Ron Appel, who has been investigating Yunona in hopes of filing criminal charges. Under the law, statements from police officers who have talked to alleged victims is hearsay.
"Sometimes a court in a default situation will accept hearsay and sometimes it won't," said Deputy District Attorney Daryl Roberts, who is handling the civil suit. "In this case the court didn't."
Prosecutors accuse Jerdev of being responsible for $1,172,496 taken from 118 victims across the country. Jerdev is reported to be in Russia, where he faces Russian charges of fraud and illegal disclosure of confidential information. Roberts recently dropped all charges against two former Yunona officers, Nick Sims and Alex Nikolenko, both of whom claimed no connection to wrongdoing.
Roberts hopes to get a default civil judgment against Jerdev so the government can sell his house on Napa's Legacy Court and use the proceeds to pay back victims. In the meantime, police hope to gather enough evidence to file criminal charges against Jerdev and have him extradited to the United States.
Roberts said Gaudagni's action was not a significant setback for the civil case.
"He's just basically telling us 'Bring this back before me with better evidence,'" he said, adding he hoped to come back before the judge sometime in the future with sworn statements from some of the victims. That may prove to be time consuming, Roberts said, because many of the victims have been reluctant to get involved.
"Unfortunately a lot of the victims are too embarrassed to do anything," he said.
But not all. One of Jerdev's alleged victims, Maryanne Fournier, of Haverhill, Mass., filed an $18,000 civil suit against him in February. That case is due to have its first hearing in front of a judge next month.
A alleged victim from San Francisco who tried to adopt a Ukrainian child through Yunona two years ago said she was surprised Jerdev faced any charges.
"I think it's great the Napa court system took it seriously," she said, adding she has since been able to adopt, but wished to remain anonymous because she held a public job.
For much of the time Yunona is accused of defrauding victims, some victims said it seemed the court system wasn't taking their concerns seriously.
Public records show the district attorney's office fielded complaints of fraud against Yunona as early as April 2003, but no formal investigation was launched until November 2005.
Roberts has said the office had been forwarding complaints to the FBI, as the FBI instructed, but the federal agency never told the Napa district attorney's office the U.S. Attorney's office dropped the case. The FBI would not comment on Roberts' statement or confirm if it ever had investigated Yunona.
A Florida woman's allegations last year that Yunona had stolen money from her prompted Napa police to raid Yunona's offices on Jefferson Street in December 2005. Police carried away business records that led prosecutors to file a civil suit against Jerdev in January and ultimately led law enforcement officials to 118 alleged victims.
In March, state Senator Liz Figueroa, D-Fremont, said publicity surrounding the Yunona investigation convinced her to introduce a bill that would make it harder for so-called adoption facilitators like Yunona to defraud victims. That bill passed the state Senate on May 30 and awaits a vote in the Assembly.
Meanwhile, the toll on many victims is counted in more than dollars and cents, according to Cheryl and Mike Blair of Milford, Conn.
"We lost $15,000 and had to mourn the loss of children we never got to know," they wrote in a statement to the Register in February. "We had pictures of the children. ... These were the children we were supposed to be adopting. We showed their pictures to everyone and had them in mind when decorating their new bedrooms.
"... I've described this as what it must have felt like to parents -- waiting nine months only to have their child stillborn and having to mourn instead of celebrate."