More details released on Arizona elected official facing human smuggling charges in Utah

Paul D. Petersen. Photo: Maricopa County Assessor's Office website

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Oct. 9, 2019 (Gephardt Daily) — More details have been released after the announcement Tuesday that an Arizona elected official has been charged in three states, including Utah, on suspicion of human smuggling and sale of a child.

Paul D. Petersen is an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah and Arizona and is the elected County Assessor for Maricopa County, Arizona. He was arrested in California Tuesday evening, said a news release from the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

“Petersen is alleged to have run an illegal adoption scheme where he recruited, transported, and offered payment to pregnant Marshallese women to give their babies up for adoption in the United States,” the news release said.

Peterson is accused of transporting more than 40 pregnant Marshallese women into Utah over the last three years as part of the scheme, the news release said. Peterson has been charged with 11 felony offenses in Utah, including human smuggling, sale of a child, and communications fraud.

In a news conference Wednesday at noon, Arizona officials said Peterson has also been indicted on 32 felony counts by the Arizona state grand jury for his alleged involvement in the adoption fraud scheme. The charges include one count each of conspiracy, theft, and forgery and 29 counts of fraud.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said at the news conference that Peterson also been indicted by federal authorities in Arkansas.

The indictment is a result of a multi-state investigation, Brnovich said.

“Peterson is accused of utilizing this adoption scheme in at least 29 births in Arizona between November of 2015 and May of 2019,” Brnovich said. “This is what we know about right now, there may be more cases and more instances.”

Peterson is also accused of using false information to place the Marshallese women on state funded healthcare in Arizona to pay for delivery costs, allegedly bilking the state more than $800,000, and possibly more than that, Brnovich said.

Peterson allegedly purchased travel arrangements for the women to travel to Arizona for the sole purpose of giving birth, Brnovich said. After the women gave birth and the children were placed for adoption, Peterson allegedly purchased travel for the birth mothers to travel to other states in America, or back to the Marshall Islands.

The families that adopted the children are not under investigation and are not the focus of the investigation, Brnovich emphasized. He said none of the completed adoptions are in jeopardy and children will not be returned to the birth mothers who gave them up.

Col. Frank Milstead, Director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said it is alleged Peterson would charge around $35,000 for each adoption, and the woman would be paid around $10,000 but Peterson would then “siphon money off the top of that for healthcare, housing and transportation and more.”

The crimes were first uncovered when an “astute” trooper named Sam Hunt was contacted by a friend who had gone to the law offices of Peterson to adopt a child, Milstead said.

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“After the initial meeting, this particular person was concerned about the legitimacy of the process and the fees involved in the process and talked to our detective trooper,” Milstead said.

Hunt is part of a task force that works with Homeland Security investigations, the Phoenix Police Department, and the Arizona Department of Public Safety. That task force started looking into the adoption process in December of 2018.

Numerous search warrants were executed at the time Peterson was arrested Tuesday night, Milstead said, and officials found eight pregnant women from the Marshall Islands in multiple locations.

Milstead clarified that people from the Marshall Islands, which are between Hawaii and the Philippines, can “come and go in the U.S., stay in the U.S. and live here, without restrictions on time,” so the women are not here illegally, but they’re not allowed to undertake the adoption process here in the U.S. It doesn’t appear at this time the women will be facing charges.

Milstead said Petersen invoked his right to remain silent and did not speak to authorities when arrested.

As the investigation continues, Petersen could face additional charges. He is being held on $500,000 cash-only bond.

The news release from the Utah Attorney General’s Office said there has been a long history of adoption-related exploitation in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and, for this reason, adoptions between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands “are governed by an Interstate Compact that prohibits this type of international adoption.”

Petersen was charged with communications fraud after “he allegedly failed to disclose the compact and other material aspects of his scheme to adoptive parents who paid him to facilitate their adoptions.”

“While Mr. Petersen is entitled to a presumption of innocence, our investigation uncovered evidence that he has committed horrible crimes,” said Attorney General Sean Reyes. “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.”

“It is heartbreaking that these families from both countries were so cruelly manipulated,” Reyes added.

In the news release, Reyes expressed his thanks to those who came forward to report these crimes, and the many agencies that assisted in the international investigation. He also expressed thanks to “the victims of this scheme, for sharing their stories with our investigators.”

The Utah Attorney General’s Office has set up a hotline to help anyone affected by Petersen’s alleged offenses. Call 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 news release said.

Gephardt Daily will update this developing story as more information becomes known.

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