By many accounts, Mary Bridgett Bonn dedicated her life to matching abandoned children from around the world to loving U.S. families, including her own.
But when a Washington state couple seemed hesitant to bring their adopted daughter Karen — an underweight Guatemalan infant with health problems — home to the U.S., Bonn apparently decided for them. In late April, the 44-year-old adoption facilitator allegedly forged Karen's travel papers and had her flown to Naples, Fla., where she spent nine months raising the child as her own.
After months of frantic inquiries, the couple hired a private investigator, who tracked the girl to Bonn's home.
Bonn, a former St. Paul resident who coordinated overseas adoptions for several Minnesota agencies, was arrested by immigration authorities in Florida this month, where she faces federal charges of harboring an illegal alien.
"It's not as serious as smuggling or human trafficking," said Bonn's attorney, Landon Miller. "She was not doing this for profit. She didn't want to see the child left in the orphanage."
But news of her arrest has sent ripples of surprise and concern throughout the growing U.S. community of international adoptive families. Internet forums like GuatAdopt.com and Adoption.com have buzzed with speculation about the case — the second scandal in as many months to throw a cloud over the labyrinthine process of relocating orphans from abroad.
The buzz appears to be especially strong in Minnesota, historically a top destination for foreign-born orphans in the United States. Nationwide, the U.S. State Department granted 20,679 immigrant visas to orphans last year, nearly triple the 7,093 granted in 1990.
Tamara Hillstrom, a Minneapolis adoption coordinator, was visiting Guatemala with Bonn last year at the same time as Karen's adoptive mother. Hillstrom said her agency has since severed its ties to Bonn, and while she does not condone her friend's alleged actions, "I know why she did it."
"I was there while she was asking this family to please give this baby a chance," Hillstrom said. "Mary's fear was that if she was put in a Guatemalan orphanage, she'd be dead in a month."
Bonn, who lived in Burnsville and Stillwater in the late 1990s, had contracts in recent years with at least three Minnesota agencies to locate eligible adoptive children in Guatemala. She served as the agencies' official liaison in the country, meeting with doctors, attorneys and foster parents.
"She was very helpful," said Beth Kantor, of Plymouth, who in October adopted a Guatemalan boy, Alex, with Bonn's help. "She is the reason we have our son home. With our family, she was nothing but caring and loving and supportive of us."
Bonn's mother and sister also worked as adoption facilitators in Minnesota and Latin America, and Bonn has adopted at least seven children herself, many of them with special needs. Among them was a St. Paul girl with a heart condition.
Karen Hannah, owner of Summit Adoptions Home Study Inc. in St. Paul, said she also saw the "humanitarian" side of the Bonn family firsthand. But when clients began to complain about lapses in communication, her agency gradually began severing its ties to the three Bonns in the late 1990s.
Mary Bonn did not return calls seeking comment.
"Sometimes, out of their own pocket, they would pay for kids' medical bills," Hannah said. "I think they meant well. But once the Internet came out, people could compare notes. And it just didn't work with clients to do it the old way."
A criminal complaint filed against Bonn this month in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers, Fla., details the charges.
While under contract with a Pennsylvania adoption agency last year, Bonn helped the Washington state couple adopt the infant girl from Guatemala. In March 2006, the girl's adoptive mother went to pick up 10-month-old Karen at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, but was surprised to learn that she showed delayed motor skills and suffered from malnutrition.
Rather than bring Karen to the U.S. to finalize the adoption, the woman returned alone "to obtain medical testing and advice regarding her daughter's medical condition."
Before leaving Guatemala, the mother had a phone consultation with Marilou Pederson, an Eden Prairie physician. Pederson recalled that the woman seemed "hesitant to accept this little baby" and "angry that she was not a big, healthy baby."
Bonn's friends and close clients said she was horrified and confided to them that she was thinking of paying for foster care for Karen, or becoming her foster parent herself.
"When you're yearning for a child, and you find a child that has got some health issues, I'm sure it took (Karen's adoptive family) aback," said Jane Costello, a former client from Simsbury, Conn. "But they were legally her parents, and they left the country."
In the months that followed, Bonn told the adoptive couple she didn't know where Karen was and "suggested that she was either in a national orphanage (in Guatemala) or returned to the birth mother," according to the complaint.
Tipped off by a private investigator, agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Collier County Sheriff's office searched Bonn's home Feb. 2, located the 21-month-old girl and arrested Bonn.
Bonn admitted to federal authorities that she had falsified the child's biographical information to get her into the country on a visitor's visa April 29, according to the complaint. But she would not elaborate on who funded the travel or whether a woman who had brought the child into the country by posing as her mother had been paid.
At the time of her arrest, Bonn said that the adoptive family "didn't want that baby," that the adoptive father just wanted his money back and that she had saved Karen.
Bonn made her initial court appearance in U.S. District Court on Feb. 5 and was released in lieu of $50,000 bond. Karen was expected to be united with her adoptive family last week, but it's unclear whether the government will seek to remove Bonn's other adopted children, Bonn's attorney said.
The U.S. State Department's Office of Children's Issues posted a brief statement regarding the case on its Web site, indicating the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala was assisting in the investigation.
In Minnesota, one of the agencies Bonn had previous contracts with was Reaching Arms International, which is now under investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. At least 19 families have complained about the New Hope agency, some of them after paying large sums up front but never receiving their adopted children from Guatemala or Russia.
In late January, state Attorney General Lori Swanson said she would seek a court-appointed auditor to review Reaching Arms' finances.
Beth and Brad Kantor, who originally sought to adopt Alex through Reaching Arms, said Bonn played a large role in their being warned about the agency. The Kantors said that when the company threatened to abandon them as clients, Bonn referred the couple to A Family Journey, which completed the legal work with the same child.
The Kantors had planned to thank Bonn — whom they had spoken with only by phone — in person at a Christmas party in Prior Lake last year, but they canceled when one of their children became sick.