MEDICAL FRAUD

Baby cord stem-cell conman caught after concerned family raises alarm

Scamster left legitimate company and set up fraudulent firm using false documents

Raúl Conejero hides his face as he arrives at court in Alicante earlier this year.
Raúl Conejero hides his face as he arrives at court in Alicante earlier this year.PILAR CORTÉS

In a way, it was almost the perfect swindle. Raúl Conejero López, a 33-year-old salesman from Alcoi, in Alicante province, did not have to think too hard to trick 400 families who were anxious to preserve their newborns' cord blood as a hedge against future diseases.

With his glasses and choirboy haircut, Conejero looked like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. He worked for Stem Cell, a Galicia-based company that offers parents the possibility of extracting blood from their babies' umbilical cord, which is rich in stem cells, and sending it to a lab outside Spain, where they are kept in case they should become necessary for future treatments such as a bone marrow transplant. The price for the service is between 1,800 and 2,200 euros.

Conejero was the perfect salesman for at least a couple of years. He found clients in the Mediterranean area and in Albacete; he explained the benefits of saving cord blood, personally picked up the samples at the hospital and sent them to a partner blood bank in Bonn, Germany.

But at some point in 2011, Conejero decided to use Stem Cell's name to find his own clients and keep all their money. He created a company he named Representaciones Biomédicas Levante, but continued to use the name and the technical support provided by Stem Cell. He never sent on the samples he received from around 400 clients, according to a Civil Guard investigation. It is still unclear what he did with the biological material.

Conejero had a major advantage in that parents could not really know whether the cord blood had reached its destination or not. They simply received a certificate in the mail, and were content with that - until a family from Albacete attempted to make sure their baby's sample was where it was supposed to be. They got in touch with Stem Cell, but were told that their child's name did not show up in their database, and that Conejero was no longer working for them. He had been fired months earlier, because his sales volume had dropped by 70 percent.

"Besides that, he had ordered a kit of blood bags that were never returned to us. We were starting to get suspicious," explains Miguel Lamela, a spokesman for Stem Cell.

The kit with the cord blood contains a lot of genetic information"

The family from Albacete then wrote an e-mail to the German lab LMB, where their baby's cord blood was supposedly being stored in accordance with the contract. A few days later, a company representative replied that the sample was nowhere in their storage area and that they may have been the victims of data falsification.

That is how Conejero's ruse was discovered. The Civil Guard opened an investigation, tapped the suspect's telephones, tagged him and his collaborators, and checked his bank accounts. The result of their work is a 3,000-page document that EL PAÍS has had access to. On March 27, the Civil Guard finally arrested Conejero on charges of heading a network of agents that swindled over 400 families. At the time of his arrest, the trunk of his car contained a few samples of children's umbilical cords and cord blood. There were also forged documents with which he allegedly conned parents into thinking that the samples had reached the lab.

That same night, Conejero said at the Alicante police station that he did not know how many contracts he had made since he created his own company. "It may be over 100, but I cannot provide a specific figure," he said.

As a matter of fact, Conejero's network consisted of just himself and two women with whom he had a sentimental relationship in the past. Conejero has a two-year-old son with Marta Mellado Brotons, and a five-year-old with Verónica Kristal Cifuentes Gandara. Both were arrested and charged with participating in the swindle as well as document forgery, then released.

"I never knew anything about his business. He is an extremely reserved person. Sometimes he seemed worried to me, but he never told me anything," said Mellado. Cifuentes for her part said that even though Conejero signed her up as an employee of his company, she never picked up any samples. "I occasionally went to a hospital with him, but he was in charge of everything."

The investigation is still underway, and the case is now in the High Court because the victims live in several provinces: Alicante, Murcia, Valencia, Albacete, Madrid and Salamanca. Many families would rather not give out their names out of a sense of shame at being swindled.

"Now we're afraid that this information will get sold on the black market or fall into the hands of mafias. At the time of signing the contract we provided personal information and the kit with the cord blood contains a lot of genetic information," says Ángel Vernal, one of the parents.

Most of the victims define Raúl Conejero as the perfect salesman. Every two months, he showed up at private hospitals like Clínica San Carlos in Murcia or Hospital Cristina in Alicante, where he organized talks and convinced future parents about the benefits of freezing their newborns' stem cells. At other times he dropped by the rooms where women in the last stage of pregnancy get their babies' heartbeat checked, and got them to sign the contract there and then. Or else he got in touch with gynecologists who recommended the service and took a commission for every contract.

The investigation shows that Conejero was using the infrastructure of an experienced company like Stem Cell for his own benefit. He never did send the 400 samples to Bonn. However, it is also true that he eventually reached a deal with two labs in Britain and sent them samples from 300 other families.

Conejero remains on remand at Fontcalent penitentiary in Alicante, where the judge sent him without bail.

Raúl Conejero hides his face as he arrives at court in Alicante earlier this year.