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Tucson woman to be sentenced in adoption case

Posted at 10:44 PM, Jan 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-17 01:10:55-05

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) -- Married for 16 years, Boston couple Cindy Cantrell and Jack McHugh dreamt of having children.

When they matched up with Tucson woman Karla Vargas through an adoption center, they were over the moon. Vargas was pregnant with twins.

"She seemed to be a girl that maybe had some bad luck in the past and was just trying to give these children, she knew they were twins, give them a nice home," McHugh said.

Vargas gave birth to the twins, but the couple never got the chance for a family of four. On Tuesday Vargas is set to be sentenced on attempted fraud charges after it was discovered she lied about giving birth, and continued to ask Cantrell and McHugh for money. 

"It was the worst thing I can ever imagine anyone doing to us, and I couldn't be a part of allowing her to do it to anyone else," Cantrell said.

It started in July of 2015. Cantrell and McHugh were matched with Vargas through the Adoption Network Law Center in California.

The couple was excited about the thought of having twins. Vargas herself is a twin, Cantrell said, and didn't grow up with her sister. 

As Vargas' pregnancy continued, the couple noticed some red flags. According to Cantrell, Vargas was constantly asking for money, and they gave her around $6,000 for things like rent.

"One time she said we weren't going to hear from her for a month because her phone was getting shut off, but we pay her phone bills," Cantrell said. "So that was odd to me."

The adoptive couple met with Vargas just once, traveling to Tucson to meet her in September of 2015. McHugh says Vargas was "badgering" them for University of Arizona football tickets. While it seemed strange, McHugh brushed it off and urged Vargas they just wanted to get to know her.

It wasn't until November of 2015 that Cantrell and McHugh became more suspicious. The day before Thanksgiving, McHugh said he had a hunch something was up. 

While Vargas said everything was fine through text messages, McHugh called around Tucson hospitals to see if she had given birth. Because of privacy laws, he didn't get any information. McHugh then reached out to the Tucson based center Oasis Adoption Services, Inc., who was also involved in the process from the beginning.

An agent with company found that Vargas had given birth on November 15, 2015 and hadn't told anybody involved, McHugh said.

Even after Vargas gave birth, the couple says she asked for money and pretended to still be pregnant. While the adoption centers were helping in the process, ultimately Cantrell also reached out to Tucson Police.

"We did this not to get money back, we did this because she was very good at this," Cantrell said. "She did everything right except at the very end she asked for one last expense check."

Detective Jennifer Burns with TPD took on the case, and Cantrell says Burns believed in them and fought for the couple. While Cantrell was nervous to speak with Burns, Cantrell says the detective was warm, empathetic and compassionate. 

"I never met her. I consider her one of my dearest friends," Cantrell said. "I can't say enough about her."

The adoption process and dealing with Vargas was "traumatizing" for Cantrell and McHugh, but since then they have been able to adopt another child. Burns even sent the couple some toys and a note, something that brought both Cantrell and McHugh to tears.

They are in the final stages of the adoption process, Cantrell said, and it still hasn't sunk in yet.

"I have a little bit of lingering trauma where I can't believe it's real, I'm afraid still," Cantrell said. "I'm afraid things won't stay together, I guess irrationally."

KGUN9 reached out to Oasis Adoption Services, Inc. but have not heard back from them yet.

Kristin Yellin, the chief legal counsel for Adoption Network Law Center, says before the incident with Cantrell and McHugh the center had worked with Vargas. Yellin could not give specifics. 

Cases like what happened with Cantrell and McHugh don't happen often, Yellin said. It can be difficult for people to prosecute similar fraud cases because it's not always "clear-cut," Yellin said.

"It is difficult to 'prevent' such a crime because most states have criminal statues requiring a showing of intent to defraud," Yellin said in a written statement. "Adoption Network Law Center does what it can to screen birth parents and continually assess their commitment level. Of course, red flags will be communicated to our client."

Birth parents have the right to not go through with the placement even after the child is born, Yellin said. Each state has it's own laws on when a birth mother can sign her relinquishment and give her consent.

"For most states, this relinquishment cannot happen until after the birth of the child," Yellin said. "Unfortunately for adopting parents, they don’t have any control over whether a birth mother goes through with the placement."

The center did reimburse Cantrell and McHugh for the money they gave to Vargas. The couple said it took about a year for it to be returned.

The twins are reportedly in foster care, Cantrell and McHugh said. They urge other adoptive parents to get criminal background checks on birth parents when considering adoption. Yellin says there is no formal check that is required on birth mothers.

Court records show Vargas' twin sister, Lucianna Lopez, is also facing similar charges.