Former Arizona county assessor sentenced in Utah to up to 15 years in human smuggling, communications fraud case

Paul Petersen. Photo: Maricopa County

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, April 21, 2021 (Gephardt Daily) — Former Maricopa, Arizona County Assessor Paul Petersen on Wednesday received the maximum sentence for human smuggling and communications fraud in Utah’s 3rd District Court.

Petersen pleaded guilty to the charges in connection to organizing an adoption fraud scheme in Utah which he also ran in Arizona and Arkansas, said a news release from the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

Petersen will spend one to 15 years in prison, a sentence running concurrently with a five-year prison term in Arizona and a six-year term in federal custody for the Arkansas case. In total, Petersen will spend between 11-15 years in custody between all these jurisdictions.

“Petersen ran an adoption fraud scheme that victimized women from the Marshall Islands, who were pregnant and illegally transported into Utah and elsewhere in the United States,” the news release said. “Petersen’s scheme violated international regulations seeking to regulate adoptions between the United States and the Marshall Islands, due to cultural differences in adoption practices and a long history of adoption abuses.”

Petersen also defrauded many Utah couples, who paid $40,000 to adopt children under false pretenses about the legitimacy of the adoption, the prenatal care provided to the birth mothers, and other material details, the news release said.

“Utah was proud to lead the way on this investigation,” said Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes. “We were pleased to bring Arizona and Arkansas into our case and get convictions and significant sentences in both those states too.”

Reyes continued: “This case has been a priority for our office for many years. Today, we feel there is a bit more closure. Trying to protect child victims every day is emotionally and physically draining. But, as a team, we are encouraged that a maximum sentence in Utah validates the seriousness of these crimes and the hard work so many have invested in this case.”

Assistant Attorney General Daniel Strong prosecuted the case. He is the section director for the SECURE Strike Force, which targets major fraud, organized gun, drug, and human trafficking, and fraud cases.

“Petersen exploited families in the Marshall Islands and Utah to benefit himself financially,” Strong said. “His abuse of the adoption process — which should be sacrosanct — is particularly egregious. This strong sentence represents the culmination of years of hard work for our team, and we are pleased to have helped deliver some measure of justice to the victims of Petersen’s crimes. We hope this sentence will help put an end to these types of adoption abuses.”

Reyes added: “I want to thank the brave nurses and medical professionals who brought the information forward that initiated our investigation. Without them, Petersen may still be exploiting children and families. I’m honored to work with dedicated investigators, prosecutors, victim advocates, and other professionals in the Utah AG’s Office whose hard work put an end to a despicable network of human trafficking, smuggling, and exploitation.”

An international compact between the United States and the Marshall Islands prohibits Marshallese citizens from traveling to the United States for purposes of adoption. During his guilty plea, Petersen admitted that he knowingly transported Marshallese women into the United States, knowing they were not United States citizens, and did so to facilitate adoptions.

Petersen also admitted he did not inform the American couples seeking to adopt these children about the international restrictions on Marshallese adoptions, and that he omitted this information to obtain the adoption payments.


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