SALT LAKE CITY — An Arizona elected official was charged Tuesday by Utah’s attorney general with 11 felonies, including human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud, according to court documents.
Paul D. Petersen, an elected county assessor for Maricopa County, Arizona, was charged in 3rd District Court with a pattern of unlawful activity, a second-degree felony; four counts of human smuggling, third-degree felonies; three counts of communications fraud, second-degree felonies; and three counts of sale of a child, third-degree felonies.
Petersen is also an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah and Arizona, according to the Utah attorney general’s office. Officials originally said he was arrested in California but later clarified he was arrested in Arizona.
Officials allege Petersen ran an illegal adoption scheme where he recruited, transported and offered payment to pregnant Marshallese women to give their babies up for adoption in the U.S.
“Due to a long history of adoption-related exploitation in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, adoptions between the United States and the Marshall Islands are governed by an Interstate Compact that prohibits this type of international adoption,” a news release from the Utah attorney general’s office stated.
As part of the scheme, Petersen allegedly brought more than 40 pregnant Marshallese women into Utah over the last three years.
Utah’s attorney general’s office worked closely with Arizona, Arkansas and the Republic of the Marshall Islands authorities in “parallel investigations of this scheme,” the news release read.
“While Mr. Petersen is entitled to a presumption of innocence, our investigation uncovered evidence that he has committed horrible crimes,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement. “Petersen’s illegal adoption scheme exploited highly vulnerable groups in two countries — the birth mothers and families in the Marshall Islands and the adoptive parents here in Utah.”
The office first discovered the case thanks to concerned hospital workers calling the human trafficking tip line, said Chief Criminal Deputy Spencer Austin with the attorney general’s office.
“It is heartbreaking that these families from both countries were so cruelly manipulated,” Reyes added.
In the release, Reyes thanked those who came forward to report the crimes and all assisting agencies who helped with the international investigation.
The attorney general’s office created a hotline to help anyone impacted by Petersen’s alleged offenses: 801-839-5640.
“Caseworkers with the Refugee and Immigrant Center – Asian Association of Utah are in place and ready to help any victims of this scheme,” the release stated.
Officials involved with the case are scheduled to provide more details about Petersen’s alleged scheme at a news conference on Wednesday.
Editor's note: Officials originally said Paul Petersen was arrested in California. It has been corrected to say Petersen was arrested in Arizona.