Mr. Mom

On a hot afternoon in May, Michael Hovan sat silently, unmoving, on a concrete bumper in the parking lot of his apartment complex. His neat white tee shirt and denim shorts were still virtually spotless despite having spent the previous few moments face down on the hot asphalt as Phoenix police handcuffed him, quickly searched him and placed him under arrest.

The 26-year-old Hovan was in trouble for trying to buy a baby, a month-old girl he'd tried to purchase for $700. Except the "parents" were undercover cops who thought something was fishy about a young, single man who insisted on a baby girl.

Last week, Hovan was indicted and arraigned for the unlawful sale or purchase of children in what appears to be the first case of its kind in the state.

Perhaps that's not as unusual as it sounds. It's only been against the law to buy or sell a child in Arizona for five years. Before 1998, if you tried to buy a kid, you simply lost your civil right to adopt, officials say. Even now, it's only a Class 5 felony (Class 6 is the lowest they go) punishable by up to two and a half years in prison.

Hovan, who was released on his own recognizance, did not respond to a request for comment sent to his e-mail address. He could not be reached by phone.

But in April, according to police reports, Hovan was posting a business card downtown around Central Avenue that said: "I'm looking for an infant to adopt. Please help. Call Mike," and then a phone number.

Sergeant Carolynn Gardom, a supervisor in the Phoenix Police Department's crimes against children unit, called Hovan. She didn't let on that she was a cop, but simply said she was curious about the card and his desire to adopt a child. Hovan told Gardom that he was fond of children and that he frequently baby-sat for neighbors in his apartment complex, near 16th Street and Bethany Home Road.

Later, Hovan told other officers that he wanted to start a day-care center and he thought it would be better if he had a child of his own.

Hovan also told Gardom that he was a philosopher and "could teach a child a lot of things," according to a police report. He also said he was writing a book on philosophy that he hoped would help bring in some money since he had recently lost his job at Yoshi's, a fast-food Japanese restaurant in downtown Phoenix.

Gardom turned the case over to a veteran detective, Chris Metelski, who says she had never run across anyone trying to adopt a baby by posting fliers around town. "That was a first for me, to see a notice up," she says.

Through records checks, Metelski was able to determine Hovan had previously lived in Ohio and that he'd only been in Phoenix a few months. Police investigators began to wonder whether Hovan was actually a baby broker -- looking for a baby to sell to someone else for profit.

Metelski says now that she doesn't believe Hovan was working on someone else's behalf. "I think he wanted a baby," she says. "Why he wanted a girl baby, I don't know."

Hovan also had picked up adoption consent forms from the County Attorney's Office that would be needed for a private adoption. Still, detectives were suspicious of his insistence on a girl baby and the fact that he wanted one quickly.

Two undercover officers posed as a young couple who were considering giving up their month-old baby girl for adoption. They told Hovan they'd gotten his card from a friend and agreed to meet him at his apartment.

"We're just kind of down on our luck, and she's kind of like bad timing," one of the officers told Hovan in a phone conversation that was taped.

Hovan, according to a transcript of the call, assured the detective that he had lots of experience with kids. "I actually run a nonprofit organization, and I try to teach them like morals and ethics kinds of thing and, uh, I'm starting, trying to start up a day-care right now . . . and since I had one, I thought I could take some more on, you know?"

The detective and her "boyfriend" met Hovan the next day. According to police reports, Hovan told the couple he didn't want to go through an adoption agency because it would cost too much. Hovan and the detectives settled on $500 as the purchase price of the baby.

But state law requires that any adoption, even private ones, go through the court, which is reponsible for approving the distribution of any money that is involved. The fact that Hovan wanted to circumvent the authorities and pass the money under the table was what broke the law, Metelski says.

The undercover detectives agreed to bring the baby to Hovan's apartment the next day, May 22. They arrived at the building where Metelski, another child-crimes detective and five members of the police department's Special Assignments Unit were waiting.

One of the detectives went inside and told Hovan his girlfriend and the baby were waiting in the car. But, he said, they'd decided $500 wasn't enough. Hovan agreed to up the purchase price to $700, police reports say, but he only had $300 in cash -- all he could get from the ATM machine that day -- which the detective agreed could be a down payment.

The men went out to the parking lot where the detective took off his cap, the prearranged signal for the SAU team to step in and make the arrest.

Later, during an interview with Metelski, Hovan said he was trying to help out the young couple, not break the law. He said he was trying to get the baby away from them because they seemed like bad parents.

Metelski says now that police may never know what, if anything, Hovan may have been up to beyond just being a single, lonely young man who wanted a baby and who went about getting one the wrong way. Detectives weren't able to look through Hovan's computer files; he wouldn't given them permission, and police didn't have a solid legal reason (probable cause) to pry into private files since the computer was not used in Hovan's attempts to adopt.

Still, the case was weird enough from the outset that detectives and prosecutors decided it needed to be followed through.

"This young man was a concern to everyone involved," Metelski says. "Everyone involved in this felt it was important. Every child is important."

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Patti Epler
Contact: Patti Epler