SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah couple was overjoyed to welcome a baby boy through adoption.
Then investigators got in touch.
They were piecing together a criminal case against the lawyer running the adoption agency, alleging he was illegally bringing mothers from the Marshall Islands to Utah after offering to pay them $10,000, then arranging little to no prenatal care once they arrived in the Beehive State.
"This was supposed to be such a happy, joyful time for us to add another member to our family, through the miracle of adoption," Dan Christensen said Wednesday in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court. "Instead it was so stressful and painful for us."
A judge moments later ordered Paul Petersen, a former elected official from Arizona who admitted running an illegal adoption scheme in three states, to at least one and up to 15 years in the Utah State Prison. Parole authorities will determine the exact length of his sentence.
"Without a doubt, Mr. Petersen, your actions have caused pain and suffering on many levels," Judge Linda Jones told Petersen, 45. She ordered his sentence to run concurrently, or alongside, the 11 years he's already begun serving: a six-year term in federal prison in Arkansas, followed by a five-year sentence in Arizona.
The Utah Attorney General's Office, which prosecuted the case, expects Petersen to eventually serve time in the Utah State Prison, although it's not yet clear how long he'll spend there, said spokesman Rich Piatt.
Petersen agreed to pay $50,000 to the state to cover costs of the investigation and prosecution, and to not practice law in the state or work on adoption proceedings for the length of his sentence. Court records show he was disbarred in Utah last month.
Christensen said the child he and his wife adopted was close to being stillborn, has difficulty learning and developed cavities that doctors attribute to a lack of prenatal care in the second trimester. They can't imagine life without the boy, he said, but wouldn't have gone through with his adoption if they'd known what they do now.
Citizens of the island nation have been barred from traveling to the U.S. for adoptions since 2003, but Petersen purposely failed to tell two adoptive parents about the prohibition so that he could secure an adoption contract, court documents say. He bought plane tickets for three women who traveled from the Marshall Islands to Utah in 2017 and 2018, and owned the house each lived in and accepted $35,000 from those seeking to adopt their babies.
Assistant attorney general Dan Strong said over 60 women in total were brought to Utah as part of Petersen's practice.
"They received poor prenatal care while they were here," Strong said. "Some received no prenatal care."
Several of the women didn't fully understand what they were signing up for because of a language barrier, Strong said, and were paid much less than promised. As many as a dozen shared a cramped house in West Valley City, where two slept directly on a floor. But Strong said Petersen assured others he was doing business by the book.
Neighbors and medical workers grew suspicious, and Utah authorities began investigating calls to a human trafficking tip line. Some of the women ultimately went through with the adoptions after advocates connected them with attorneys and interpreters, but others declined.
Petersen, wearing an orange prison uniform and white face mask for the hearing held over videoconference, apologized to his family and those who used his adoption services.
"The last thing I would have ever wanted was any adoption to be challenged," said Petersen, who resigned from his job in Arizona as Maricopa County's assessor in January 2020. "I don't think any has, actually, and I'm grateful for that, but that doesn't mean that those feelings that people have aren't legitimate and they shouldn't be recognized."
His defense attorney, Scott Williams, argued Petersen has been cast as a villain but, other than society in general, an investigative report ahead of sentencing found no one was harmed.
"His family has been destroyed, and he is professionally and financially obliterated," Williams wrote in court filings ahead of sentencing.
Petersen ran an adoption agency for more than 15 years, primarily involving birth mothers from the Marshall Islands, and other agencies used his model as a template, Williams wrote. He described his client as a "family man" who has four young children and whose marriage fell apart during prosecutions in three states.
Investigators knew of Petersen's practices for more than five years before his arrest. At least one of the adoptive families doesn't consider themselves victims and was "overjoyed" with Petersen's services, Williams said, and they're not alone. But his supporters haven't spoken up for fear of negative repercussions from the public and the government, he alleged.
Jones sentenced Petersen to up to five years in the Utah State Prison for each of three counts of human smuggling, a third-degree felony, and one to 15 years in prison for communications fraud, a second-degree felony. She ordered the counts to run concurrently, or at the same time.
Petersen had faced an additional seven charges in Utah, but prosecutors agreed to drop them as part of the plea bargain. They are an additional count of human smuggling, three counts of sale of a child and two more of communications fraud, plus one count of pattern of unlawful activity.