TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It’s the nightmare adoption agencies and lawyers warn about.
A person or couple spends thousands of dollars in legal fees and paying for the living expenses of a pregnant woman who is giving up her baby up for adoption, only to find out there was no baby.
“It hurts and it’s so painful,” said Julie Zupan, a professional cellist who gave nearly $12,000 to Tallahassee resident Krista Toro while she supposedly was pregnant, only to discover nine months later that there was no baby. “They take your money and take your dreams and hopes.”
Toro, 44, has been charged with one count of organized scheme to defraud, a third degree felony, and is out on $2,500 bond.
Throughout Florida, people have preyed on the emotions and pocketbooks of couples and single people looking to adopt.
State law requires that prospective adoptive parents hire a licensed, certified adoption agency or attorney if you are going to enter into a private adoption arrangement, said Madonna Finney, a Florida Bar board-certified adoption lawyer with 31 years of experience who sits on the board of the Florida Adoption Council.
“When you strike out on your own without the help of a professional, you are more vulnerable,” Finney said.
Legislators in 2003 made it a crime to intentionally benefit financially by deceiving people seeking to adoptme. It focuses on people who receive living expenses without ever intending to make an adoptive placement.
Defrauding adoptive parents is a third degree felony if the amount is more than $300.
In addition, the victim can sue in civil court for damages, including the expenses paid and attorney fees and other costs incurred by the agency or prospective parent.
After reviewing the police files, Assistant State Attorney Dan Bruno said the state has a solid case and will probably add grand theft and adoption deception to the charges against Toro.
“There are a couple of witnesses who saw her and said she was clearly not pregnant (during the timeframe she was supposed to be),” Bruno said. “And medical records show the only time she went to the hospital was for a slip and fall. Also, she initiated the call with someone she had successfully adopted to before. She found a willing victim without going through the process.”
Also taken into account is Toro’s lengthy criminal record. The Leon State Attorney’s Office has had 38 complaints against her, including for fraud and forgery.
State attorneys are sometimes reluctant to charge perpetrators, said Stephen Price, an Orlando adoption lawyer and president of the Florida Adoption Council.
“Some jurisdictions jump on it,” Price said. “If it’s egregious enough and makes headlines it’s going to get attention.”
The fact that Toro wasn’t pregnant makes the crime all the more egregious, Price said.
“That is just outright illegal and needs to be prosecuted because you are preying on people in a horrible way,” Price said. “You are taking advantage of somebody’s hopes and you can’t prosecute that enough.”
Even with the legislation in place, there is always a risk, he said.
“There are no statistics to substantiate this, but my experience has been that the majority of scamming I’ve seen is committed by someone with prior exposure to the adoption process,” Price said.
Zupan knew all this, but she trusted Toro because she had already gone through one adoption with her, using an adoption agency and adoption lawyers. Her criteria was to have a fully caucasian baby without drug exposure.
She made an agreement to move Toro and the child’s father, Tommy Adams, from Orlando to Tallahassee, and paid for the pregnant woman’s living expenses until she gave birth in April 2016 to Caleb, who was born addicted despite their agreement.
Two months later, Toro called Zupan out of the blue.
“She said she was pregnant again and would I like to adopt another baby,” Zupan said.
Of course she would. Caleb would have a biological brother or sister, and it would be convenient for Toro to keep in touch with both children.
Zupan agreed to pay her $500 a week in living expenses during Toro’s alleged pregnancy.
Toro sent her a photo of a pregnancy test via text message in June 2016, and sent her an undated sonogram of a baby in December 2016.
In July 2016, Toro and Adams were evicted from the town house where Zupan had moved them.
As the due date approached, Zupan’s lawyer tried to contact Toro without any luck.
Four days after the March 18, 2017, due date, Toro called to inform Zupan that the baby had been stillborn due to something called “placenta previa,” that the hospital would cremate the baby and she was released after 24 hours.
A suspicious Zupan researched placenta previa and found that it doesn’t cause stillbirths nor does it occur with full-term babies. Also, women with placentia previa are not discharged from the hospital within 24 hours. Zupan contacted the Tallahassee Police Department, which launched an investigation.
Police investigators interviewed the manager of the Woodspring Suites hotel where Toro was living. She told investigators she saw Toro two to three times a week and she didn’t show any signs of pregnancy during the three months she was at the hotel, even two weeks before the supposed birth.
Toro’s sister also told investigators that her sister didn’t appear pregnant as she was still smoking and going to the gym to work out. During her previous pregnancies, Hall told investigators, Toro was “as big as a house” and each time she was pregnant “the quicker she shows and the bigger that she is.”
A subpoena of bank records showed that Zupan had paid Toro $11,395 over the nine months that Toro was supposedly pregnant.
Further investigation of medical records showed Toro was not pregnant during the time she told Zupan she was with child.
In the meantime, investigators discovered Toro had been in the Orange County Jail during the time of her alleged pregnancy. The Orange County Corrections Health Service Department, however, said a pregnancy test on Toro came up negative.
Records obtained from Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare showed Toro visited the hospital only once during the timeframe of her supposed pregnancy – and that was an emergency transport to the hospital after she reported slipping and falling down some stairs.
Investigators filed a probable cause affidavit and had a warrant issued July 12, 2017, but it took two years to track Toro down.
Toro was arrested March 12 and charged with one count of organized scheme to fraud, swindling to obtain property under $20,000. She was released on a $5,500 bond and required to abstain from alcohol, have no contact with Zupan, and refrain from any further criminal activity.
Follow Jeffrey Schweers on Twitter: @jeffschweers.