The overwhelming desire to have a child when you can't has been known to make smart couples risk big. Does that help explain why Susanne and Ray Breitwieser gave their life savings to a man who said he'd deliver, but didn't?
The Breitwiesers, of Sicklerville, never considered surrogacy until Susanne, a loan officer, met Len Brooks on a mortgage deal in South Jersey.
"It was a sign," she said at their kitchen table, explaining that while she combed through Brooks' past financial woes, she also saw how surrogacy had given him two kids and inspired him to get in the business.
Susanne, 53, had a son at 20, but the toddler died of heart disease, and she could not conceive again. After she and Ray had spent a decade together, Ray, a 45-year-old painting franchise owner, said he "had a feeling I wanted to have a child, raise a child."
Suddenly, surrogacy made sense.
"At least we can look at the baby and see Ray in it," Susanne figured. "Len made it sound like, honestly, it's a sure thing. . . . He said, 'You'll have a baby next year.' "
In 2002, the couple wrote Brooks' Cherry Hill-based MidAtlantic Center for Surrogacy checks for $19,500 with "Baby" in the memo line.
Two years later, after a few frustrating attempts with a surrogate in the Midwest, the disappearance of their escrow account, and what they call Brooks' dodging and lies, and the couple cut off ties.
Now the Breitwiesers want their money back and to protect others dreaming of diapers from falling for this baby broker's sales pitch.
Len Brooks laughed out loud in court when the criminal case against him was dismissed this month in Burlington County.
Brooks, 37, was charged with stealing from an Evesham man who had paid $24,500 but had gotten neither a surrogate nor a baby and only a partial refund. Prosecutors dropped the case after learning how Brooks crafted his contracts to maximize his take.
The outburst was a curious reaction, given the minor victory in a mounting legal war.
The FBI confirmed to me that it is investigating Brooks. Agents are interviewing disgruntled clients and surrogates, spokeswoman Jeri Williams said.
Generally, Williams said, a criminal investigation of a contract dispute hinges on intent. "If that person was never in the position to fulfill the contract, that's fraud," she said.
Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi said that while the theft case had fallen apart, 17 other victims were waiting in the wings.
"We don't indict people for the hell of it," he told me. "It's not over, not yet."
Meanwhile, by ignoring two civil lawsuits against him in New Jersey Superior Court - the Breitwiesers' and one filed by the North Jersey man behind the cautionary Web site www.lenbrooksthecrook.com - Brooks owes former clients $150,000 in default judgments for fraud and breach of contract.
A third lawsuit was filed last month, and more angry, childless customers are considering suing, said lawyer Kimberly Lunetta of the Morgan Lewis law firm.
These are not the kind of cases that a big firm or she, an employment lawyer, normally take, Lunetta said. But as the Breitwiesers' neighbor, and a mother of twins, she felt compelled.
"It's so offensive that somebody can do what he has done and get away with it," Lunetta said, alleging that Brooks was hiding assets and using aliases. "The guy has immense gall."
Brooks' high-profile criminal attorney, Donald Manno, downplayed the drama.
"An FBI investigation doesn't mean anything," Manno insisted.
Brooks, now living in Florida, first claimed to not know about the civil cases when I asked, then acknowledged he intentionally had ignored them.
Brooks told me that his business had resulted in more than 60 births since 1999, but he declined to produce any evidence of satisfied customers. He now has eight clients across the globe, he said. In light of the bad publicity, he's thinking of starting his own Web site, www.lenbrooksisnotacrook.com.
"We are being painted by a handful of people as criminals running off with their money," Brooks said in a phone interview last week.
"This is a tough business, very volatile, expensive and emotional," Brooks told me.
He defended his fees - normally $12,000, baby or no baby - and said foes were the ones out for an easy buck.
"The people who walk away with a baby say, 'Thank you, I think about you every day.' And then I have other ones, who say, 'You're a fraud.' "
If meeting Brooks was a sign to try surrogacy, the failure made the Breitwiesers more resolved to become parents.
After losing so much, they're spending more, on adoption fees and legal bills fighting Brooks.
"He's still doing it," Ray explained. "We want him to stop."
Recently, the couple got a call from their adoption worker about a woman expecting twin boys.
This, too, seemed like a sign to Susanne, who thought of the story of the drowning man who passed up two boats, waiting for God to save him.
"If we say, 'No,' maybe that's our last opportunity. I could get to heaven and ask God, 'Why didn't you give us a child?' And he'd say, 'I tried to give you twin boys.' "
Last week, as a pick-me-up, Susanne bought the CD by Corinne Bailey Rae. The British wonder seems to be singing to them on a track called "Seasons Change":
Don't you know that, that patience is a virtue . . . and life is a waiting game . . .
To listen to Susanne and Ray Breitwieser talk about their experience with surrogacy, go to http://go.philly.com/surrogacyEndText