Arizona elected official believed to have smuggled more than 40 pregnant women through Utah in illegal ‘baby mill’

(Photo courtesy of the Utah Attorney General's Office) Paul Petersen

Utah authorities say they believe an elected official from Arizona smuggled at least 40 pregnant women from the Marshall Islands into the Beehive State as part of an illegal adoption scheme.

And some of those women, they say, are still in Utah and are days away from giving birth. Pregnant women were also found in a home in Arizona that was raided as Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen was arrested Tuesday.

“The commercialism of children is illegal,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said at a Wednesday news conference. “And the commoditization of children is simply evil.”

Officials in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas announced late Tuesday evening that Petersen had been arrested and is facing criminal charges in each state for allegedly smuggling pregnant women from the Marshall Islands into the United States for the adoption of their children.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes talks about the case against Paul D. Petersen during a news conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. Petersen is charged with human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud. (Jeremy Harmon/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

In Utah, Petersen faces eleven felonies: One count of second-degree felony pattern of unlawful activity, four charges of third-degree felony human smuggling, three charges of second-degree felony communications fraud and three charges of third-degree felony sale of a child.

The second-degree felonies carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison, while the human smuggling and sale of a child counts carry a zero-to-five year penalty.

Officials with Utah’s attorney general’s office said Wednesday that they began investigating Petersen’s adoption law practice in October 2017, after a hospital staffer in Utah called an attorney general tip line with concerns about a possible illegal adoption involving a Marshallese woman who had given birth at the hospital.

They say they uncovered a troubling scheme in which Petersen facilitated the travel of dozens of women to Utah for illegal adoptions between December 2016 and August 2019.

Petersen’s website boasts that he can help couples adopt children “without the direct involvement of a third party, such as an adoption agency or a state agency.”

But the Utah attorney general’s office says Petersen violated a compact between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands, which bans Marshallese people from traveling to the United States for adoptions — unless they have a special visa.

Charging records allege that Petersen — an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas — charged couples in the United States $35,000 to adopt children from the Marshall Islands.

He’s accused of hiring people to recruit pregnant Marshallese women to give birth in the United States, then give up their children for adoption. The women received $10,000, charges state, and the costs of their travel were paid. Many left the country weeks after their children were born, officials say.

Chief investigator Leo Lucey said Wednesday that authorities believe the pregnant women stayed in homes throughout the Wasatch Front, and came to Utah just weeks or months before they were due to give birth. Charging documents focus on one home in West Valley City, where investigators say they watched several pregnant Marshallese women coming in and out of the home.

An adoptive couple later told police that they went to that home after they adopted their child and saw 15 or more pregnant women there, some appeared to be sleeping on mattresses on the bare floor. They described the circumstances as a “baby mill,” and said it “just did not seem right.”

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) This house on Florita Ave in West Valley City is where Paul D. Petersen is alleged to have housed women from the Marshall Islands as they waited to give birth. County records show that Petersen sold the house in May 2019.

County records show Petersen sold that home in May, and new homeowners appeared to have moved in to the tan split-level home.

Petersen’s attorney, Matthew Long, defended his client during his first court appearance in Arizona on Tuesday evening. “These are proper business practices that they simply disagree with,” Long said.

Long balked at the $500,000 bail set for his client, saying Petersen is an Arizona native who would not flee if released. He said Petersen has been aware of the investigations for “many months.”

“This is something that’s been milling for a long, long time,” Long said.

Petersen wrote in his county assessor biography that he’s been involved in adoption law for at least the past 15 years. He’s been licensed to practice law in Utah since 2018, according to the Utah Bar directory.

The Utah attorney general’s office didn’t know exactly why Petersen chose to bring pregnant women through Utah, but Reyes said it could be because of the state’s lax adoption rules or because Utah has a high Marshallese population.

Petersen appears to have chosen the Marshall Islands, Reyes said, because he served a mission there for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Arizona attorney touted that experience with the Marshallese culture on his adoption website.

"Paul is the only attorney involved with the Marshallese country in the United States who is fluent in the Marshallese language," his website states. "Because of this fact, Paul has been successful in hundreds of Marshallese adoptions across many different states."

This undated photo provided by the Maricopa County Assessor's Office shows Assessor Paul Petersen. Petersen has been indicted in an adoption fraud case, accused of arranging for dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to come to the U.S. to give their children up for adoption. Utah also has charged him on multiple felony counts, including human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud. (Maricopa County Assessor's Office via AP)

The website includes portraits of smiling families and parents holding new babies. Utah’s attorney general considers those adoptive parents to be victims of Petersen’s scheme as well.

Charging documents say couples told investigators that Petersen didn’t tell them that he had paid to bring the Marshallese women to Utah or that the women had been paid $10,000 to give up their children. The couples had been told the mothers were given proper prenatal care, but the birth mothers later told investigators that they did not receive medical care unless they were experiencing labor pains or giving birth.

The couples told investigators that they would have had “serious concerns” or would have stopped the adoption process if Petersen had informed them of the adoption restrictions in the Marshall Islands or about the payments to the birth mothers.

Derek Williams, an adoption attorney in Utah who has worked with the Arizona lawyer on adoptions, told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was at times concerned that Petersen insisted they only use Petersen’s interpreters and care takers.

One was the case that Williams described as the worst in his career, a time when a birth mother represented by Petersen refused to sign the final adoption paperwork after his clients already had the child. When the Marshallese birth mother came to Williams’ office from where she was living in Logan, his translator told him that the mother believed she would get her baby back when the child turned 18.

Williams said he called Petersen, who insisted it was a miscommunication. But, after about a 30-minute discussion, the woman decided against going forward with the adoption.

Williams then had to make a phone call to his clients, a Utah couple.

“You need to bring the baby back to my office,” he told them. “She’s going to keep that baby.”

The couple sobbed, he said, as they handed over the infant to him.

The Utah attorney said it can be hard to know when one party may be doing something possibly illegal, because the birth mothers will often sign paperwork saying they received no compensation.

“It stains ethical adoptions,” he said. “We don’t want Utah to have that reputation when there’s so many trying to do it right.”

The Utah attorney general’s office has established a hotline to assist anyone affected by Petersen’s alleged offenses, which can be reached at 801-839-5640.

Lucey said his office has received more than 30 calls since officials announced Petersen’s arrest Tuesday night. Reyes said the hotline can be used to pass on tips, and to connect Marshallese women who may be in Utah with food, shelter or other needed resources.

The office didn’t rule out filing more charges later against people they believe helped facilitate Petersen’s adoption practices, but stressed that they don’t plan to prosecute any of the adoptive couples.

“We don’t have any interest in unwinding or interfering with adoptions that have taken place,” Reyes said Wednesday.

Reyes said he doesn’t believe Petersen’s position as Maricopa County assessor played a role in his alleged crimes in Utah.

“If we are able to prove our case,” he said, “it’s extremely disappointing for the people of Arizona and also for those of us who hold public office.”

Petersen still held his elected office as of Wednesday, according to the Arizona Republic. He faces 29 charges there, accused of not only smuggling Marshallese pregnant women into Arizona, but also scamming that state’s Medicaid system. He’s accused of bilking his home state out of more than $800,000 by falsely claiming the Marshallese women were Arizona residents.

Petersen also faces 19 federal charges in Arkansas, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported.

“Make no mistake, this case is the purest form of human trafficking,” U.S. Attorney Duane Kees said at a Wednesday news conference in Arkansas.

Petersen was arrested in Arizona and made his first court appearance on Tuesday, but it’s not clear which state will prosecute him first. He’s expected to be in court again in Arizona later this month.