exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in



Pamela Constable

Washington Post

The anxious Americans, mostly young couples and single women who had never been to the Third World before, were told to keep a low profile and stay indoors as much as possible.

At night, in their hostel rooms, they could hear bombs going off. On the sidewalks of the dirty, depressing city, people would glare or mutter in Spanish as they passed.

When the signal came from their lawyer, four or five of them would be bundled into a small rented plane and flown to a remote town in the Andean highlands. They glimpsed children in rags, soldiers with machine guns, sometimes prisoners being paraded across the village square.

After a while, a local official in a rumpled suit would come to their hotel rooms with questions and documents. Their lawyer, an American named James P. Gagel, would translate, papers were signed and hands shaken, and the visitors were whisked back to Lima.

Then came a second agonizing wait, weeks of idle days and sleepless nights while Gagel tried to push the bureaucracy along.

But when it was all over, the exhausted families would be safely on board an international jet, heading home to Rochester or San Francisco or Washington with their exit visas miraculously stamped and their precious, squalling, just-adopted Peruvian Indian babies in their arms.

"The mastermind of an international child trafficking ring." That was what prosecutors in Peru labeled Gagel, a 40-year-old Irish American lawyer from New Jersey who set up shop in Lima in 1990 and arranged for more than 40 American families to adopt Peruvian children during the next two years.

Foreign adoptions were soaring to record numbers in Peru, and those by American couples had doubled to 639 in a single year. Many Peruvians were already suspicious of the practice, which was poorly regulated and operated at the edge of the law. It was widely reported that judges and clerks were routinely bribed to overlook irregularities, shady lawyers charged exorbitant fees, and uneducated birth mothers were sometimes pressured into giving up their infants.

At the time, wild rumors had begun sweeping Latin America that babies of poor, vulnerable mothers were being kidnapped and sold abroad for organ transplants, medical experiments or servitude in the United States.

No one knew where the rumors came from, but they tapped a deep vein of nationalistic resentment against American intrusiveness. They also fed on the racism within Peruvian society, which made people incredulous that white middle-class families from abroad would want an Indian baby to raise and love.

There was even an ancient Quechua myth that fit the stories about foreigners snatching babies for body parts. A ghoulish creature called a pishtako would come in the night and suck the "grease" out of children, leaving them dried out and dead. In more contemporary versions, the pishtako was described as a white foreigner and the "grease" was used to oil his machines.

Jim Gagel, a brash, baby-faced gringo with a personality that was equal parts missionary, thrill seeker and fast-talking entrepreneur, made an especially tempting target for public paranoia and official wrath.

Setting up a private adoption business that provided foster care, legal services and translation for adoptive and birth parents, he maneuvered his way through multiple loopholes in the Peruvian legal system and used daring methods to complete in eight weeks adoptions that normally took eight months.

In the process, Gagel pocketed an average of $7,000 per adoption from desperate, childless American clients -- fees that must have seemed astronomical in a country where teachers and police officers earned $150 a month.

As word of Gagel's success spread in Peru, police and prosecutors began to pressure him. His office and affiliated foster homes were raided several times, and in early 1992 a zealous police commander obtained a warrant for his arrest. Gagel fled into hiding in the concealed basement of a friend's house.

Then, according to Gagel, police arrested a dozen of his employees and tortured his office maintenance man with electric shock, trying to obtain information. On Feb. 24, authorities broke down Gagel's door and forced him to kneel handcuffed in the street. At a chaotic press conference, police and prosecutors described Gagel as the head of a criminal network that had kidnapped and sold more than 5,000 Peruvian children abroad.

"I became the modern-day pishtako who needed to be beheaded," he says.

A Satisfied Customer

Jilda Agnoli squeals with delight and throws her arms around the big Irishman, hugging him fiercely. Her 5-year-old daughter, Lenna, a sprite with smooth brown skin, shining black eyes and an aquiline Inca nose, bounces up and down at her side. It has been five years since Agnoli last saw Gagel, as she hurried onto a plane in Lima with a thin, feverish baby girl in her arms.

"I've been waiting so long for this moment, just to thank him, to show him how beautiful she is," Agnoli says. She is 40, a petite professional woman from South Carolina who happened to be visiting relatives in northern New Jersey for the holidays when she saw a story about Gagel in the local paper and arranged to see him.

Now, the day after Christmas, both families are crowded around a friend's kitchen table in Rutherford, N.J. Lenna is coloring next to Gagel's own adopted Peruvian daughter, and Agnoli is pulling out snapshot after snapshot of Lenna as an infant.

She had first tried to adopt a child in the Dominican Republic, but learned its government was clamping down on international adoptions. Frustrated and desperate, she leapt at Gagel's offer to help, especially when he said he could take care of the procedures quickly.

"I knew adoptions in Latin America were a roller coaster. I knew anything could happen," she says. Gagel also warned her that Peru was dangerous, especially because of terrorist attacks and bombings by two leftist insurgencies, the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. So, once in Lima, Agnoli mostly stayed in her hostel, meeting other adoptive parents and then Lenna and her birth mother, while they waited for court documents and appearances.

On the appointed day, Gagel came for her and several other parents, and the little group flew to Satipo, a mountain town about 300 miles east of Lima. This was a mainstay of Gagel's practice: To circumvent the crowded and often uncooperative courts in the capital, he arranged for friendlier judges in smaller cities to handle the cases, which was legal in Peru.

Once in Satipo, the Americans were warned that there were "problems" in the hills, and that they should lie low. Two court officials finally came to their inn, and the initial adoption papers were signed. "They asked me if I knew it was a lifetime commitment, if I would teach her Spanish and her Peruvian heritage," Agnoli recalls. "I was very impressed."

Then came the wait for final papers to be approved, which took about a month because another judge insisted on obtaining the signature of Lenna's birth father, even though he had abandoned her mother and vanished. But Gagel pulled every string he could, and finally a grateful Agnoli and her new daughter were headed home.

With legal fees, plane fares, temporary foster care and other expenses, the adoption had cost her $15,000.

"When I heard that Jim had been arrested, it was very upsetting to me," Agnoli recalls. "I sat down and wrote to everyone I could think of. This idea of buying babies to sell their organs was absolutely shocking. Lenna is the most wonderful thing in my life, and Jim Gagel is responsible."

Dissatisfied, Too

Not all the parents who hired Gagel felt the same way afterward. Some were traumatized by their harrowing experiences in Peru, and a few felt angry and cheated after their adoptions failed to go through. One Virginia couple complained publicly at the time that they had wasted $20,000 and felt like part of a back-alley business in which the babies seemed to be everyone's least concern.

But in interviews during the past two weeks, half a dozen parents from as many states painted largely complimentary portraits of Gagel's efforts to find and secure them a child. Many remember being scared, sick and frustrated, and some recall being faintly suspicious of the legal maneuvers. But several said Gagel went out of his way to make sure both adoptive and birth parents were well informed and committed.

"Jim knew how to get things done, but nothing ever seemed fishy. I remember him saying he had just turned down a birth couple because their story didn't sound right," recalls Ilene Joslin, 38, who lives in Georgetown, Ind. She and her husband, a retired Navy commander, adopted a Peruvian baby boy in 1990, flying to Huancayo high in the Andes to sign the papers.

"Jim worked 24 hours a day, and he got us through a tough emotional time very smoothly," Joslin says. "He played an important part in making our family complete."

Although Gagel tried to shield his clients from public and official opprobrium, several parents said they felt it keenly during their time in Peru. They were well-meaning people, convinced they were offering an escape for children who might otherwise grow up in squalor or neglect. Suddenly they found themselves as reviled as if they were stealing a national treasure.

One father described people taunting him in front of the U.S. consulate. Another couple had to flee a restaurant where Gagel was introducing them to the birth mother after someone heard the manager say, "I know what they're up to. I'm calling the police." Jeanne Miranda, an adoptive mother who is a Washington psychologist, says she was asked point-blank by a judge if she planned to use her baby for body parts.

"I can understand how awful it must feel, watching babies being moved out of your country. It has to rip at the very soul of a proud people and culture," says Fern Polasky, 53, a consumer research expert in Philadelphia who adopted a baby girl named Joanna in 1991. "I'm sure that's how Jim got stuck in such trouble," she adds, "but we tried to be sensitive; we didn't go marching around the streets. We were just grateful for the blessing we enjoy in Joanna."

Bob and Penny Lusk, a couple from Upstate New York who adopted 6-year-old Roberto the same year, had an especially harrowing time. Bob Lusk, 50, a tall, blond mental health counselor, says he immediately felt out of place in Lima. "People would stare at us; they would say things through the gate. Everywhere we went guards had guns, even at the market. I was very frightened."

The Lusks' one-day trip into the mountains was scarier still. Penny Lusk describes flying over the vast, dark Andes in a tiny plane, bumping along a dirt runway and being immediately warned there was guerrilla activity in the area that day. In Satipo, they say, the terrified couple passed machine gun nests on rooftops, and prisoners being marched along at gunpoint.

Even after Bob flew home to New York and Penny remained in Lima with Roberto, waiting for the final papers, their nightmare continued. "I would call her at midnight and she would be there alone with the baby crying," he says. "There would be no power, and you could hear bombs going off."

In a final test of their stamina, the Lusks ran into last-minute opposition from an unexpected source: a new U.S. consular officer who had a strong aversion to foreign adoptions. Penny, a social worker, says the man made her come back repeatedly to answer more questions and provide more documents, adding weeks to her stay even after the Peruvian legal process was complete.

But through all the delays and disappointments, the Lusks say, Gagel kept them sane and upbeat. He took them to Inca ruins; he organized Halloween and Thanksgiving parties for groups of waiting parents. Behind the scenes, he schemed and strategized, pestered the bureaucracy and traveled to remote provinces trying to locate documents that would confirm their baby's identity.

"He fought by our side, and he refused to charge us more even though it ended up taking a lot of extra time and work," says Penny Lusk. "He knew he was taking risks, with all the distrust and the horrible fabricated stories. People said we should give up and maybe try for another baby. But Jim never let us give up hope of bringing Roberto home."

His Day(s) in Court

The dungeon below Lima's Palace of Justice was a grim, stench-filled warren where hundreds of prisoners were packed while awaiting hearings. That was where Gagel -- a 1982 Rutgers law school graduate and former volunteer for Mother Teresa's charities who came to Lima in 1989 with a Fulbright scholarship to work on judicial reform -- was dumped after his arrest.

"There was no light, no heat, no drainage, no food, no mattresses. I lost 25 pounds in two weeks," he recalls, ruefully patting the paunch that has crept back since. "I was put in a cell with a Colombian drug trafficker, and the guards would periodically let in this horde of regular prisoners to shake us down, for a laugh. They stole our coats, our shoes, everything."

Eventually Gagel was assigned to San Jorge Prison, a relatively modern facility that housed other "special" detainees including homosexuals, prison employees, the mentally infirm and minors accused of being guerrillas. There he was allowed to have books and receive visitors, and he was soon producing a steady stream of legal motions, protest letters and press releases.

At first, the case generated lurid headlines in Lima's tabloid press and ringing denunciations from Peruvian politicians. Prosecutors produced a distraught birth mother who said Gagel had kidnapped her child; they charged him with 10 felonies ranging from fraud to child trafficking and demanded a 15-year prison term. Meanwhile, every Peruvian who had worked for Gagel -- foster mothers, secretaries, drivers, interpreters -- was also arrested and thrown into jail.

Gagel denies he ever broke the law, while boasting that he "did an end run around the system" to circumvent Peru's cumbersome adoption process, and acknowledging that his aggressive, high-profile style irked the judicial establishment. "The authorities simply didn't like what we were doing," he says. "They wanted to put a stop to the wave of adoptions, and they decided to use terror tactics to do it."

Gagel asserts that the police commander who pursued him so ardently was actually piqued because the lawyer had refused to pay him protection money. Before his arrest, he had filed a formal complaint of extortion against the official, but he says it was ignored. He also says his accusers in the legal community were mostly envious of his success. Phone calls to Peru failed to locate prosecutors in the case, and calls to the Peruvian ambassador in Washington were not returned.

"It was a snowball effect," says Grace Riggs, a lawyer who represented Gagel, reached by phone in Lima. "There were all these rumors about mafias trafficking in organs, this police commander on a personal crusade, and this gringo lawyer down here doing all these adoptions. They talked about 5,000 children disappearing, but it actually came down to one mother complaining. The pieces never added up to a whole picture."

The prosecutors, however, stuck to their guns. During the next four years -- one spent in prison and three in which he was barred from leaving Peru -- Gagel went through four trials. Three times, according to news reports, the case was dismissed or reversed (once because a panel of judges had declared him guilty before holding the trial), and three times the government appealed.

But the well-connected lawyer was hardly without friends. A dozen members of Congress, peppered with letters and calls from Gagel's clients and relatives, in turn protested to the Peruvian government. Mother Teresa sent several supportive letters from Calcutta, one of which noted that Jesus "was also unjustly accused." American diplomats visited Gagel frequently in San Jorge -- and so did Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, twice.

"A lot of Foreign Service people get pretty cynical about American citizens in trouble overseas, but this was one of those rare cases where the embassy was utterly convinced of someone's innocence," says Mark Kirk, a former State Department employee who visited Gagel in prison, and who suggested that some of the anti-adoption propaganda was spread by Peruvian guerrillas. "We never saw any legitimate complaints on the adoption issue that would have aggravated the situation."

Over time, even the press in Lima began to take Gagel's side, especially after Fujimori visited him, the mother who had accused him of kidnapping her child turned out to have voluntarily signed legal adoption papers, and other birth mothers whose babies were seized as evidence from temporary foster homes also came forward to say they had agreed to the adoptions.

"They said we were capturing the children and tricking the biological mothers, but it was totally false, and the mothers all supported us in court," says Lidia Castillo, a foster mother who was arrested with Gagel and spent 14 months in prison before being acquitted of all charges. "I gave good care to those babies," she says several times in a telephone interview from Lima. "In spite of everything, I am happy because so many of them are now in beautiful homes, safe from suffering and poverty."

Finally, last March, a fourth trial opened before a panel of judges in Peru's superior court. As the date for judgment and sentencing approached, Gagel submitted a request to be absent for medical reasons and made plans to escape across the border into Bolivia.

With Riggs representing him in the courtroom, Gagel prowled the streets of Lima, waiting for the verdict. He tried to reach her on a cell phone but it went dead. He found a rare functioning pay phone in a hotel, waited in an interminable line, and finally got through. He had been acquitted of all charges.

"They had an 8,000-page investigation, but they were never able to come up with any real evidence against me," Gagel says triumphantly. "I could have left the country so many times during these trials, but I didn't want to give them the satisfaction. I wanted to stay and clear my name."

It took another five months before Gagel was able to legally depart with his Peruvian wife, Pilar, their adopted daughter and an 8-month-old son. There were bureaucratic mix-ups over his court papers, and problems securing visas for the children. But three days before Thanksgiving, the family finally boarded a jet for Miami and a new life in the United States.

Case Closed?

Jim Gagel, ever the self-righteous self-promoter, has condensed his travails into a breathlessly worded outline that he hopes could become a book or movie.

But after four years of seeking news coverage from Lima, he is suddenly worried that publicity could hurt him as he tries to find a job and settle back in the United States after seven years abroad.

First, Gagel calls a reporter with the news that he is home and vindicated. Two days later, he sheepishly asks if the story might be postponed or dropped. Finally he relents and reverts to press-release mode, greeting the reporter at his friend's home in Rutherford with bagels and muffins, introducing his wife and children, and proffering lists of happy adoptive parents.

He's glad it's all behind him, Gagel says. He's looking forward to a more normal life of suburban car pools and mortgage payments, maybe a position with a respectable law firm doing divorces or business contracts.

But his tone of voice is not very convincing, and the devilish gleam in his eye returns instantly as he launches into another hair-raising tale from those heady days back in 1990 and 1991, when a little rented plane would bounce onto a muddy runway high in the Andes, a group of nervous American parents would gape out the window, and a man with a machine gun would stride forward to greet them . . . 

1997 Jan 12