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U.S. Lawyer Jailed In Adoption Probe; Would-Be Mother Trapped in Lima

March 13, 1992

LIMA, Peru (AP) _ The lack of one document - a new birth certificate - is preventing an American woman from adopting a 3-year-old Peruvian girl and rescuing her from poverty.

It’s a formidible hurdle. The prospective mother’s U.S. lawyer, Jim Gagel, is in jail in Lima, facing accusations of kidnapping and falsifying documents to sell thousands of babies to foreign couples.

The case of the ″baby trafficker″ has dominated headlines in Lima since Gagel’s arrest Feb. 24. The U.S. Consulate said the publicity has stalled all pending adoption cases.

Gagel denies any wrongdoing. But his client is virtually trapped in Lima with a child she’s grown to love. She speaks no Spanish. Her money is running out. She has proof that the child wasn’t kidnapped, but she doesn’t know if the statement from the birth mother will convince a judge.

Her dream of motherhood has turned into a nightmare.

″Every day I’m just praying for a miracle, that we’ll be able to get out of here,″ said the woman, a teacher in her late 30s, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Authorities claimed Gagel stole and sold as many as 4,000 children. A computer found in his office was allegedly programmed to falsify documents to speed-up the adoption process, police investigators said.

In a prison interview, the 35-year-old attorney from New Jersey said he was innocent and asserted he was set up because he refused to pay protection money to police.

Gagel said he was handcuffed, forced to kneel and repeatedly slapped after his arrest by an investigator who menaced him with a tire iron.

The lawyer came to Peru in 1989 on a Fulbright scholarship to lecture Peruvian magistrates on U.S. law and stayed on to start a legal practice arranging adoptions.

Gagel said he has arranged 45 adoptions over the last two years, personally earning no more than $1,500 from each case.

Despite the sensational accusations against Gagel, the prosecutor has filed only one charge of kidnapping. No trial date has been set.

The charge stems from a Peruvian mother who claimed that Gagel tricked her into giving up her son. Gagel says the woman voluntarily gave up the child and spent nearly two months getting to know the American woman who adopted the child.

To bolster his claim, Gagel presented a photograph of the two women together and court documents approving the adoption.

″I always had a list of eight to 10 kids and another list of two or three couples looking to adopt,″ he said. ″I didn’t need to be out on the corner stealing children.″

More than half of Peru’s 22 million people live in poverty, and the detriorating economy makes it tough for poor families to support their young. Some give up children for foreign adoption, and lawyers like Gagel and Peruvian colleagues make the arrangements.

Peruvian laws make it seem relatively easy, but corruption in the courts and other complications can slow the adoption process.

Adoptions usually cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to cover legal fees, translations of documents, ″home studies″ required for prospective parents, transportation and living expenses.

The influx of Americans and Europeans has rankled some Peruvians, who consider it a national shame that the country cannot care for all its youngsters. Media reports have been critical of foreign adoptions.

U.S. diplomats declined comment on the allegations against Gagel. But U.S. Consul General Virginia Carson Young noted that with so many ″unwanted″ children in Peru, no one need resort to kidnapping.

Any adopted child traveling to the United States must first receive a visa, which is issued only after the consulate has verified adoption documents and is assured that the child was given up by the birth mother.

In 1991, U.S. citizens adopted 639 Peruvian children by Sept. 30, almost twice as many as the previous year, according to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service statistics.