In October 2007, Michael Varga, a police officer assigned to the Chula Vista Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit, began interviewing women about the abortions they had received at a local clinic, Clinica Medica para la Mujer de Hoy. The storefront clinic, with its dull turquoise awning, was located on Broadway, next door to Plaza’s Mexican Food. Its windows were blacked out and the image of a stylish woman was drawn onto one pane. For years, the clinic had targeted Spanish-speaking women with low-cost terminations of their pregnancies. Varga was investigating Bertha Pinedo Bugarin, a layperson who was purportedly the owner/manager of the Chula Vista clinic as well as five other medical offices in Los Angeles and Orange counties, each specializing in cash-only abortions. Months earlier, the Health Authority Law Enforcement Task Force in Los Angeles had begun its inquiry into Bugarin’s operation. It had obtained a search warrant, and among the patient records it seized were 56 from clients who had “received medical services, generally abortions,” at the Chula Vista clinic, according to a declaration Varga made to the San Diego Superior Court. The task force had turned these records over to Varga.
Nine of the 56 women agreed to look at a photographic lineup of potential female suspects. Each of the nine, all of whom complained about their abortions, identified Bugarin as the one who had done the procedure. Eight had been charged between $300 and $500. Most of the women said Bugarin wore a white lab coat and called herself a doctor. Several suffered complications; a few told Varga that they experienced extreme pain. To several, Bugarin prescribed or dispensed medications.
Varga noted that the Medical Board of California confirmed that Bugarin was “not a medical doctor or physician, she was unlicensed, and had never held a physician’s license to practice medicine.” But on these nine “unwitting victim-patients” she had performed abortions.
One of the nine, Marta C., went to the Chula Vista clinic on March 9, 2007. Bugarin injected Marta with a local anesthetic, performed the procedure, gave her pills to take, and told her to come back in two weeks. When Marta returned, she was told her termination had been unsuccessful. That day a male doctor performed the procedure again. This time it was successful.
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Another of the nine, Lindsey T., paid $2000 for a late-term abortion on March 7, 2007. Bugarin placed a laminaria, a small piece of dried seaweed, into Lindsey’s cervix. Over the course of a day, the tubular seaweed would absorb moisture and swell, dilating the cervix to allow for the abortion. Bugarin told Lindsey to go to another clinic she owned in Santa Ana for the next procedure.
According to Varga’s declaration, Lindsey said that the laminaria caused her to suffer extreme pain. The next day in Santa Ana, she changed her mind about terminating her pregnancy and decided she wanted to deliver the baby. Bugarin agreed and said that once she removed the laminaria, the baby would be all right. But Bugarin had difficulty removing the tube and “had to call someone to get instructions,” Varga’s statement says. After Bugarin finished, Lindsey “suffered more pain.” Bugarin gave her a prescription. But Lindsey continued to have complications and was admitted to an emergency room at a local hospital for further treatment. About a month following the procedure, the baby was born prematurely and died shortly after its birth.
Bertha Bugarin was arrested in San Diego on June 19, 2008. She was charged with nine felony counts of practicing medicine without a license, one felony count of grand theft, and one misdemeanor, “dispensing dangerous drugs.” At her arraignment, Bugarin wore her black hair very long; her oval face seemed downcast, her expression, lost. Bugarin agreed in December to plead guilty to all ten felony counts and will be sentenced February 27.
Two of Bugarin’s assistants in Chula Vista — Luz Catalina-Gomez, 23, and Paloma Yonna Solorzano-Rodriguez, 27 — were charged with four counts of aiding and abetting Bugarin and one count of grand theft, all felonies. According to the California Penal Code, anyone who aids a “principal” in committing a crime is also charged as a principal in the crime. The district attorney says that both women knew Bugarin was not a doctor. Their case has been continued until March.
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During the task force’s investigation in Los Angeles, five patients came forward and identified Bugarin as the woman who, posing as a doctor, performed abortions on them and gave them drugs. On August 1, 2007, Bertha was arrested in Los Angeles County and released on $500,000 bail; on September 6, her sister Raquel was arrested and released on $100,000 bail. Bertha was eventually charged with 16 and Raquel with 7 felony counts of practicing medicine without a license. (Bertha also faced 1 count of grand theft and 2 misdemeanor counts of dispensing medication without a license.)
Following the Bugarins’ arrest, the Los Angeles court ordered the siblings not to practice medicine, not to hire or engage licensed physicians to provide medical services, and not to enter the clinics in Panorama City, Los Angeles, Baldwin Park, Huntington Park, and Santa Ana, as well as the clinic in Chula Vista. From these clinics, authorities confiscated equipment and records. Among items listed in court records were “machinery used to conduct abortions”; medical supplies and equipment; “dangerous controlled substances and dangerous devices, i.e., used and unused syringes with needles and unsterilized medical instruments”; “human fetuses stored in plastic containers”; and “patient records, many of which would indicate that abortions were not performed by a licensed physician.”
In September 2008, Raquel pleaded no contest in an L.A. courtroom to three counts of practicing medicine without a license. She received three years’ probation and agreed to do 500 hours of community service as well as pay $3270 in restitution. Raquel was described in court documents as “a passive participant,” identified by six patients. “Her role was limited to using ultrasound equipment and assisting Bugarin during medical procedures.”