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SALT LAKE CITY — An Arizona elected official faces criminal charges for bringing at least 40 pregnant women to Utah from the Marshall Islands as part of an alleged illegal adoption scheme.
Paul D. Petersen, 44, of Mesa, and his associates recruited, transported and offered Marshallese women $10,000 to give their babies up for adoption in Utah over the past three years, according to an information filed in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City.
Petersen serves as the Maricopa County assessor and is an adoption lawyer licensed to practice in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas. He was arrested in Arizona on Tuesday.
“The commercialization of children is illegal. The commoditization of children is simply evil,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said at a news conference Wednesday.
Petersen is charged with 11 felonies, including human smuggling, sale of a child, communications fraud and pattern of unlawful activity. He also faces state charges in Arizona and federal charges in Arkansas.
Reyes couldn’t say why Petersen chose the Marshall Islands in which to arrange adoptions other than he had served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the country.
Because of a long history of adoption-related exploitation in the Marshall Islands, adoptions between the U.S. and the tiny South Pacific nation are governed by the Compact of Free Association. The agreement bans visa-free travel from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. for the purpose of adoptions.
Investigators says Petersen never told adoptive parents about the agreement or Marshallese law. He also misled them about the process, including the number of adoptions he was doing, the amount of prenatal care provided to mothers and that he offered to pay them and fly them to Utah.
An adoption agreement with prospective parents showed Petersen’s fee at $25,000 up front and $10,000 after delivery of the baby. Between December 2016 and September 2018, more than $2.7 million went to a bank account Petersen gave adoptive parents for wire transfers, with most transfers being payments of adoptions, court document say.
Utah investigators started investigating the case after receiving a call to the state’s human trafficking tipline about a possible illegal adoption involving a Marshallese woman at LDS Hospital in October 2017.
Agents found several Wasatch Front hospitals noticing an influx of Marshallese women giving birth and placing their babies for adoption. All of them reported living at the same West Valley house owned by Petersen, according to court documents.
One adoptive couple who visited the birth mother after she delivered told investigators the house seemed like a “baby mill.”
The couple saw more than 15 pregnant women living in the home, many having to sleep on mattresses on a bare floor. Investigators say the women, who arrived in Utah late in their pregnancies, received little to no prenatal care.
Several Marshallese women interviewed by investigators said a Petersen associate contacted them after they learned they were pregnant. They were told they could get $10,000 in exchange for placing their babies for adoption in the U.S. Recruiters supplied them with passports and airline tickets, according to court documents.
Reyes said the investigation found evidence that Petersen committed “horrible” crimes.
“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,” he said.
Prosecutor Dan Strong said he didn’t know how many adoptions Petersen has facilitated involving Marshallese women, but that there were more in Utah than in the other states. Reyes said the state has no interest in unwinding adoptions that have already been completed.
In Arizona, Petersen faces a 32-count indictment alleging conspiracy, theft, forgery and 29 counts of fraudulent schemes. He is accused of illegally obtaining services from Arizona’s Medicaid system for the women, falsely claiming they are Arizona residents.
Petersen is accused of bilking the state out of more than $800,000, according to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
A federal grand jury in Arkansas returned a 14-count indictment against Petersen, including charges of human smuggling, visa fraud, mail fraud and money laundering.
An investigation by Honolulu Civil Beat last year questioned the legality of Petersen’s adoptions and found the legal reforms set up by the Marshall Islands aren’t working.
Marshallese women can travel to the U.S. intending to give up their children for adoption with almost no potential for being turned back or even questioned. American adoption attorneys and Marshallese facilitators fuel the pipeline by buying the women plane tickets to the U.S. and providing them a place to stay, food and other necessities while they wait to give birth, according to the report.
Petersen declined to talk to Civil Beat. But Matthew Long, an attorney for Petersen, told the publication that the adoptions are monitored by a variety of state regulatory agencies, bar associations and courts, and that none have found anything amiss.
“Mr. Petersen has complied with the law,” he said.
Since the story about the charges against Petersen broke late Tuesday, the Utah Attorney General’s Office has received more than 30 calls from potential victims inside and outside Utah, said Leo Lucey, investigations chief. The office has set up a hotline to assist anyone affected by the case at 801-839-5640.