The Cruelest Hoax

updated 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN THE CALL CAME, ROSE GARGUILO COULD BARELY CONTAIN HERSELF. It was March 1992, and on the line was Lawrence Raphael, an adoption attorney in Chicago retained by Rose, 34, and her husband, Ed, 46. After years of trying to conceive naturally, the couple had reluctantly decided that their only option was to adopt. Because private adoption is prohibited in Connecticut, the Gargulios had to go out-of-state for help. They had been given Raphael's name by one of their neighbors in Fairfield County, Conn. Now Raphael was saying that he had a 20-year-old single mother-to-be named Angela Andrews in his office.

Andrews had told the attorney that the unborn child, which she was expecting in July, was the result of a rape by. a coworker. Opposed to abortion, she was interested in placing her baby with the Garguilos and wanted to speak to Rose. "My knees went weak. My heart was beating so fast," says Rose, who worked at a brokerage firm. "I was so nervous, because I wanted her to like me. I told her I hoped Ed and I could help her put this behind her."

As things turned out, the Garguiios have had a tough time putting Angela Andrews behind them. And they aren't alone. Until she was convicted and sentenced earlier this year, Andrews ran a remarkably successful—and heartless—adoption scam. She is now imprisoned for conning 10 sets of prospective parents in five slates with the promise of a child in return for "financial support." In all, she swindled her victims out of at least $55,000 while wreaking emotional havoc. Even law-enforcement officials, familiar with the sometimes shady dealings in the world of adoption, view the crime as an especially stark warning to people looking for a back-channel baby. "Adoption is not a dirty word," says Chicago prosecutor Richard Schwind. "But it has been set way back by Angela Andrews." (Attorney Raphael has not been implicated in Andrews's con game.)

For the Garguilos, as for other victims, everything seemed to go smoothly at first. In the initial phone calls, Andrews told them that she wanted to make a clean break with the baby. She insisted that they sign papers stipulating that the son or daughter never be allowed to learn her identity. In return, Andrews requested that the Garguilos pay her $1,000 a month for her rent and living expenses; she explained that she was on public assistance, which would cover the medical costs. "She said all the right things," says Rose. "She left no room for us to be anxious."

In fact the Garguilos were too busy rejoicing. Within a week they flew out to see Andrews, who lived in a modest two-bedroom house in Antioch, Ill., 40 miles north of Chicago. "I was so overcome with emotion just being in the same room with her, I started to cry," says Rose. The Garguilos also met Jennifer, Angela's year-old daughter by boyfriend Terry Pounds, 24, a local mechanic. Once back in Connecticut, Rose went out and bought Angela maternity clothes. Without telling Ed, who manages a recycling plant, she even sent her occasional flowers and a gift certificate to J.C. Penney. All told, the Garguilos paid out some $7,500 to Andrews. "It's a big risk you take emotionally and financially, but you don't really care because you're so desperate," says Rose. "It's pathetic."

But even early on, there were signs of trouble. The Garguilos repeatedly requested that Andrews send them her medical reports, a fairly standard practice in such adoptions. The reports never showed up. Whenever the Garguilos tried to press her, Andrews would become indignant—and they would back down, terrified that she might decide to give her baby to another couple. "You do everything you can to keep this girl happy," says Rose. "I would have gone out there and washed her hair. I called her every day, sent her cards every week."

Andrews also began to badger the Garguilos for extra money, supposedly to pay for food. But just as the Garguilos were getting uneasy, Andrews disarmed them with another ploy. On Mother's Day she sent Rose a card. Inside was a poem she had written—along with an ultrasound picture of the baby. "When I saw that, my whole family was jumping up and down screaming with joy because I was definitely going to get this baby," says Rose. "No matter how much hell I had to go through worrying about medical reports, it didn't matter."

Meanwhile, that same Mother's Day weekend, another couple 3,000 miles away, who also had their hearts set on Andrews's baby, were realizing the terrible price they had paid for believing in her. Through an adoption counselor. Cindy and Richard "Jake Jacobsmeyer, who live in the San Francisco area, first encountered the woman they knew as "Renee" Andrews in mid-February. Andrews told them she had been raped In a fellow employee at a Red Lobster restaurant in Chicago. She said she wanted to come right out and see Cindy, 40, a corporate executive for a medical company, and Jake, 43, a lawyer.

A week and a hall later they flew Renee and her daughter out for the weekend. During the next few days, the Jacobsmeyers were put off by some of Andrews's behavior. "She treated the whole weekend like a vacation," says Cindy. "When I look her shopping, it blew my mind how quickly she grabbed for things when someone else was buying." Despite their misgivings, the Jacobsmeyers readily agreed to Andrews's financial terms and during the next few months paid her more than $4,000, including money for shopping, airline tickets and monthly support.

Like the Garguilos, the Jacobsmeyers requested medical records from Andrews, who was supposedly due in early July. None were received. Then in early May, Andrews abruptly slopped returning their phone calls. On Mother's Day the Jacobsmeyers contacted their adoption counselor, Nancy Hurwitz, and expressed concern about the absence of any medical information. Hurwitz got in touch with Rence, who told her that a sonogram had revealed that the baby was actually due in June—not July—which meant that her boyfriend, Pounds, rather than the rapist, must be the father. As a result, said Andrews, she had decided not to give up the baby. The Jacobsmeyers were crushed. "It was like a death," says Cindy. "I couldn't go into the baby's room. I had little outfits, and I didn't have it in me to return them." Nor did the couple see any point in trying to recover their money from Andrews, since they assumed she had spent it all and had no other assets.

For the Garguilos, the consequences of the scam were even more disastrous. In July, at Andrews's insistence, Rose quit her job so she would be able to come out and help care for the baby right after delivery. But the alleged July 25 due date came and went with no child. Instead, Andrews began pressuring the couple for more money. Their attorney, Raphael, advised them not to pay another cent. Still desperate, however, they contacted Andrews in early August, who said that she was simply overdue and was about to have labor induced.

Though skeptical, the Garguilos immediately flew to Chicago to be at the birth. "We had decided that instead of feeling negative, we had come this far. and even though it had been rough, we were going to get a baby," says Ed. They didn't. The day after they arrived, Rose put in a call to Andrews's doctor. She explained who she was and asked if there was anything she could do. After a silence, the doctor whispered, "Be careful." In short order he told Rose that Andrews was not due for another month and that it was his impression that she had already lined up adoptive parents in California. He also said he knew nothing of any rape. When Rose confronted Andrews, she stonewalled, refusing to discuss the matter. Two days later the Garguilos flew home to Connecticut without a baby—and Rose without a job. "What she did, she did very well," says Ed ruefully. "She was very good at it."

Not good enough, though, to stay clear of the law. In January 1992, Andrea, a housewife in suburban Chicago, who has asked that her last name not be used, got a call from a friend who said she had just had lunch with a woman who was pursuing a private adoption. The woman had told how the birth mother—named Angela—had been raped at a Red Lobster. To Andrea's friend, the story had a familiar ring. She remembered that Andrea, 37, and her husband. Jack. 35, had in the past year dealt with a woman named Renee with a similar story. In Andrea's case, Renee had suddenly changed her mind a week before the birth. leaving them out $9,750 dollars and keeping the baby—Jennifer.

Comparing notes, Andrea and her friend went to the police in Glencoe, Ill. By matching phone numbers and pictures, Det. Floyd Mohr, a 14-year veteran of the force, determined that Angela and Renee were one and the same. But he needed more evidence that she was running a con. Thus Mohr and fellow officer Betsy Seno decided to pose as parents looking to adopt. In January they called Andrews and arranged to meet. Andrews soon agreed that they could have her child, in exchange for 8990 a month in living expenses. In the weeks that followed, Mohr and Seno got a good taste of how Andrews squeezed her victims. One day, for instance, she phoned them more than 50 times. sometimes just to chat, other times complaining that she didn't have enough money.

In July, Mohr got permission from the state attorney general's office to subpoena Andrews's phone records, which yielded leads to other families she was swindling. During subsequent meetings, he also wore a wire to record conversations with her. But in the back of Mohr's mind was the realization that the special circumstances of this case made it necessary to proceed cautiously. "We didn't want to do anything to jeopardize her pregnancy," says Mohr. "Even if she's the biggest crook in the world, there was still a baby inside her."

And indeed it wasn't only the police who were closing in on Andrews—Mother Nature was enforcing her own deadline. Andrews's real delivery date, in September, was fast approaching, and she was eager to make a big score with a new couple since she had dropped all the others. She traveled to California, which has liberal adoption laws, and called an adoption attorney, who put her in touch with a couple in Los Angeles. Andrews was on the phone with the wife on Sept. 10, when her water broke. Andrews rushed to the hospital. met the husband and wife and gave birth the next day. Within a week, after turning over the infant to the adoptive parents and receiving a total of $11,100, Andrews returned to Illinois, where she and Pounds went out and bought a big-screen television, a camcorder and furniture.

On Oct. 1, a police officer posing as a flower deliveryman rang Andrews's front buzzer. As she opened the door, Mohr burst in, shouting, "It's over, Angie!" Last February, Andrews pleaded guilty to theft, fraud, illegal placement of a child and other charges. (Pounds is scheduled to go on trial in June on charges of attempted theft.) Now serving a nine-year sentence at the Dwight Correctional Center near Chicago, Andrews admits that she did wrong but insists that she didn't stoop so low as to actually try and peddle her own flesh and blood. "I never said, 'Here's a baby if you give me $10,000,' " she says.

As Andrews tells it, she was simply trying to build a decent life for herself and Jennifer. She says she grew up poor in the St. Louis area and bore a baby at 15, whom she put up for adoption. She describes the 1991 birth of Jennifer, who's now living with relatives, as "the best thing that ever happened to me." When she discovered she was pregnant a third time, however, she once again saw an opportunity to improve her life, and Jennifer's, in material ways. "I was going to give this baby to someone else," she says. "I wanted Jenna to have everything."

Yet Andrews's victims sensed there had been something deeper in her motives—something about the way she relished setting them up for the fall. One couple who got caught up in her scam, Terry and Steven Szostek of Las Vegas, say that during their negotiations with Andrews, she even went so far as to insist that they take Lamaze classes so they could be with her in the delivery room. Thinking it over later, Steve, 47, and Terry, 38, who paid Andrews $20,000, believe Andrews worked so hard at building expectations because she wanted the heartbreak to be all the more painful. "I really think she has a mental problem insofar as dealing with adoptive parents," says Steve, a lawyer. "There was a real class distinction she was feeding on." At times, Andrews comes close to admitting as much. "The only reason people liked me was because I had something they wanted," she says. "People used me, so I was going to use them back."

In the end the same determination—and desperation—that made many of the victims such easy prey for Andrews also proved to be a saving grace. Many eventually got what they wanted most: a child. Last September Rose and Ed Garguilo adopted a baby girl, Marie Elena. Two months later Cindy and Jake Jacobsmeyer also adopted a girl, Kelsey. And on New Year's Day, Terry and Steve Szostek also became adoptive parents. For better or worse, says Rose, the world of adoption isn't built on trust—only hope. "You roll the dice," she says. "That's the risk you're taking, but you have to do it."

BONNIE BELL in Chicago

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