A Selma woman who scammed 11 couples seeking a surrogate mother will spend at least four years in prison and pay close to $200,000 to her victims.
Jennifer Anne Soronen, 42, could serve up to nine and a half years behind bars after pleading guilty earlier this month to 11 felony counts of conversion by a bailee. Soronen will receive credit for the year she spent in jail awaiting trial, according to court documents. Once released, she will spend another 10 years under supervised probation.
Superior Court Judge Reuben Young also ordered Soronen to repay $183,387 to the people she ripped off.
The victims were 11 couples from across the Carolinas who did business with Soronen’s company, Baby Steps Egg Donation LLC. The couples each paid Soronen to find them a surrogate mother who would carry the couple’s fertilized eggs to pregnancy term and then give them the baby. Instead, records show Soronen took the money and spent it on personal uses.
Each of the couples gave Soronen thousands of dollars, records show, with several bills totaling more than $10,000. The couple scammed of the most money paid Soronen nearly $60,000.
Young waived Soronen’s court costs so she would have more money to give her victims. The judge also recommended that she take part in a work program while in prison. Any income she earns will go to repaying the people she cheated.
District Attorney Susan Doyle released a statement expressing her satisfaction with the sentence Young imposed on Soronen.
“The defendant inflicted extreme emotional and mental anguish upon the victims in this case, many of whom were using her as a last resort to have a child,” Doyle said. “Instead of using the money to help victims achieve their dream of having children, the defendant stole the money and used it for personal services, including a breast augmentation and hair and nail treatments.”
In sentencing Soronen, court documents show, Young found several aggravating factors to her crime. Those included taking advantage of a position of trust or confidence; the “great monetary value” of her theft; the fact that her victims were “extremely vulnerable, both emotionally and medically;” and that the harm she caused “occurred in the context of significant emotional and time-sensitive issues involving health and parenthood.”
Soronen committed the crimes from February 2013 through the end of 2013, records state. Soronen turned herself into authorities and was jailed May 7, 2014, after a grand jury indicted her on charges of embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretense. She remained jailed under a $150,000 bond until pleading guilty on May 5.
A plea for no jail time
Soronen had hoped to avoid a prison sentence in order to to take care of her children, one of whom has medical issues and requires special care.
The argument against an active sentence was laid out in a report prepared by Sentencing Solutions Inc. of Knightdale. The 14-page document includes a medical note from the special-needs child’s doctor, and it was commissioned by Soronen’s attorneys, Oksana Cody and Seth Blum of the Kurtz & Blum law firm in Raleigh.
The report casts Soronen as a mother who made mistakes under stress from long work hours, a deteriorating marriage and the responsibility of having up to five children at home.
Soronen developed a sympathy for couples who could not conceive children after viewing a TV news report in 2002, the report states. She went on to bear four children, including one set of twins, for couples as a surrogate mother.
Soronen founded Baby Steps Egg Donation in 2005, the report states, and she originally ran it as an honest business that helped couples. Soronen first remembers taking money from the business in 2008, to cover a mortgage payment, the report states, and she always intended to repay the money. Eventually, Soronen began taking money to “meet her need to escape the reality of her life,” and she stopped keeping books for the business.
Soronen split with her husband in December 2012, and he has a poor track record of taking care of the children, the report states. Since Soronen went to jail, the children have been living with her mother at an apartment complex for seniors, the report states. If she were to receive a prison sentence, Soronen worried her kids would end up in foster care.
“Ms. Soronen knows she deserves punishment and accepts her fate, yet she is forced to fight for leniency as she does not believe the father of her children is capable of caring for them,” the report states. “Ms. Soronen, her mother and her former boyfriend have all shared incidents in which the children were not properly cared for or even injured while in their father’s care.”