MODESTO — A woman who ran a Modesto surrogacy agency has pleaded guilty to four counts of wire fraud after bilking would-be parents out of millions of dollars, authorities said. Tonya Ann Collins, 37, pleaded guilty in federal court in Fresno, U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.
She could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when she is sentenced in May.
Court documents show that from November 2006 through March 2009, Collins carried out a scheme to defraud prospective parents, surrogates and banks through her company, SurroGenesis, and the associated Michael Charles Independent Financial Holding Group.
Victims from as far away as Germany lost money, some of them their life savings. Many went into debt to finance their dream of having children.
Patrick Johnson is one of them.
"I was single and I wanted to have a kid," said Johnson, who lived in Hughson in 2009 when he started working with SurroGenesis. "She took $93,000 from me and she spent it like she was on holiday."
Collins, Johnson said, painted a picture of a successful company. The company website featured testimonials from happy new parents and claimed to have offices all over the country and internationally.
Andrew Vorzimer, a reproductive-law attorney who represents some plaintiffs in civil lawsuits against Collins and the defunct SurroGenesis, said last spring, "If you went to Google Earth and punched in the address, it would come up a pasture in Colorado or a gas station."
Vorzimer could not be reached for comment Tuesday; the civil lawsuit was on hold pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings.
Authorities arrested Collins on April 20 at her home in Antelope, in Sacramento County.
Authorities say Collins steered her clients to Michael Charles Independent Financial, which was purported to be a personal property escrow company that would hold clients' funds in trust and pay surrogacy fees, medical fees and costs associated with the surrogacy process.
But Collins owned Michael Charles, which she concealed from clients by creating fictitious employee identities to make it appear it was an independent company with its own staff, prosecutors said.
"I started noticing something was funny when I was transferring money," Johnson said. "One of the voices sounded real familiar."
According to the plea agreement, Collins used the SurroGenesis and Michael Charles accounts for unauthorized personal purchases that included automobiles, homes, jewelry, clothing and vacations for herself and others, without the clients' knowledge or consent. Authorities said victims suffered losses of more than $2 million. Prosecuting and defense attorneys declined to comment Tuesday.
Collins is scheduled for sentencing May 13 in Fresno. Johnson, who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area and still doesn't have children, plans to attend.
"I'm hoping she gets the max," Johnson said. "I'm still going to be paying for her car and her jewelry and all this high living that she did I'll be paying for that for the next 15 years."
Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2343. Follow her on Twitter, @pattyguerra.