Two years ago, a Utah couple at the heart of a scandal that halted international adoptions from Samoa faced a long stint behind bars for allegedly duping Samoan parents into giving up their children.
But on Tuesday, Scott and Karen Banks pleaded guilty to five misdemeanors in a deal that likely will give them probation rather than prison. Dozens of felony charges against them will be dropped.
Prosecutors who once referred to the Wellsville adoption agency operated by the Bankses as an "insidious criminal enterprise" and touted the case as a crackdown on adoption fraud on Tuesday called the plea deal "a creative, forward-looking approach to ensure that justice is served."
The Bankses and other defendants must pay into a trust fund that will help Samoan children placed for adoption with families in Utah and across the nation and through Focus on Children (FOC). The U.S. Attorney's Office said in a written statement it will release more details about the fund after the defendants are sentenced in February.
During hearings before U.S. District Judge David Sam on Tuesday, the Bankses and three other defendants -- Coleen Bartlett, Karalee Thornock and Dan Wakefield -- all admitted to aiding and abetting the improper entry of an alien. The charge carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.
An attorney pleaded guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy on behalf of FOC, which ceased operations in Utah in the summer of 2007. The business must dissolve and could be ordered to pay a fine of up to $250,000.
As part of the plea deals, prosecutors will dismiss all remaining charges in an 135-count indictment and ask Sam, who is not required to accept the agreements, to impose five-year probation terms. The defendants have agreed to not participate in the adoption business while they are on probation.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said Tuesday everyone has focused on finding a resolution that is best for the families and children.
One mother who lives in the southwestern United States and adopted a Samoan girl through FOC -- and learned her daughter's birth father did not abandon her and wanted to halt the adoption -- said she is pleased the defendants are accepting responsibility for their actions.
"We would have wished the defendants would have received jail time for their actions, and the plea does not address the adoptions and permanency of the adoptions in the U.S. -- now or in the future," said the mother, whom The Salt Lake Tribune is not identifying at her request to protect her daughter's privacy.
The mother added "No plea bargain can compensate for the anguish and cost -- both emotionally and financially -- to the real victims in this case: our children."
Mike Nyberg, an adoptive father who eventually returned his daughter Elleia to her birth parents in Samoa, also said he is disappointed the defendants will likely only get probation.
"I guess I just hope this brings some closure to all of the children and the adoptive and birth families," Nyberg said.
In addition to contributing to the trust fund, Scott and Karen Banks will be required to:
» Participate in a news conference after their sentencing where they will talk about the case to educate the public and others who might be engaged in similar conduct.
» Meet with prosecutors and the State Department to provide information on FOC's adoption practices in Samoa, Guatemala and other countries to see if adjustments need to be made in U.S. laws.
» Relinquish all rights in adoption documents, photographs and other papers related to Samoan adoptions.
A federal grand jury in Salt Lake City issued an indictment in February charging the defendants with conspiracy, fraud and immigration violations. The charges targeted 37 of 81 Samoan adoptions by FOC between 2002 and mid-2005.
Prosecutors say recruiters exploited the faith of the Samoan parents -- many of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- and sold adoption as a program that would send youngsters to live with an American Mormon family and get a good education before returning home at 18. The Samoan parents claim they also were promised money, regular letters and photos from the U.S. families.
Prospective adoptive parents allegedly were falsely told that the youngsters were orphans or abandoned. U.S. immigration laws require adopted children to be orphans, defined as abandoned by both parents or left with one parent who cannot provide care.
Prosecutors allege some parents took children to an FOC nanny house, but they often visited and took the youngsters home for extended stays. They say other children were cared for at home even after adoption paperwork was done.
Lawyers for the Bankses have said Samoan birth parents were repeatedly told they were giving up legal rights to their children and should not expect to see them again.
No charges have been filed in the case in Samoa. Samoa Attorney General Ming C. Leung Wai said Monday that police there have yet to complete their investigations, including one involving the death of a 1-year-old infant girl who was staying at a FOC nanny house in Ululoloa.
The Samoan coroner found that Heta Nua died in June 2005 at Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital of malnutrition caused by gastroenteritis and severe dehydration.
Assistant Police Commissioner Li'o Papalii Taeu Masipau had not responded to a request for information at press time.
The U.S. government so far has been unable to extradite the remaining two defendants, Samoan citizens Tagaloa Ieti and Julie Tuiletufuga.
Charges are still pending against them. An LDS Church spokesman has said the church had no involvement with the agency.
Two sentencing hearings are scheduled next month for the defendants in the Focus on Children case who admitted aiding and abetting the improper entry of an alien.
Dan Wakefield, 72, who pleaded guilty to five counts of the misdemeanor, said he helped locate parents in Samoa who wanted to have their children adopted by Americans. He is slated to be sentenced on Feb. 19.
Being sentenced on Feb. 25 are Scott Banks, 47, who held a management position at the agency, on five counts; Karen Banks, 46, who also held a management position, five counts; Coleen Bartlett, 52, who, among other duties, facilitated the adoption of Samoan children, two counts; and Karalee Thornock, 36, who served as a Pacific Islands case worker, one count.
The defendants have been free pending resolution of the case.
The Bankses have been in a legal dispute with a Kansas couple over who gets to adopt a now-4-year girl from China. At the end of a trial last year, a 1st District judge awarded custody of the girl to the Bankses but declined to grant an adoption pending the outcome of the criminal case.
Curry and Mary Frances Kirkpatrick of Overland Park, Kan., have appealed the judge's decision to the Utah Court of Appeals.