Paul Petersen pleads guilty to human smuggling in Utah as part of a multistate adoption scheme

FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2019, file photo, Paul Petersen looks on following an initial court appearance in Salt Lake City. Petersen, a former elected official in metro Phoenix accused of running an illegal adoption scheme in three states involving women from the Marshall Islands, The former elected official from metro Phoenix accused of running an illegal adoption scheme pleaded guilty, Thursday, June 18 , 2020, to fraud charges. He faces a maximum of 17 years in prison for his guilty pleas on Arizona charges of fraudulent schemes and forgery. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

A former public official in Arizona accused of bringing pregnant women from the Marshall Islands into at least three states — including Utah — pleaded guilty to human smuggling and communication fraud.

Paul Petersen admitted to the four felonies in Utah on Friday, a day after he pleaded guilty to fraud charges in his home state of Arizona for submitting false applications to their Medicaid system for the mothers to receive state-funded health coverage. He’s also expected to plead guilty next week to charges filed in Arkansas.

"Utah, today, is safer," said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes at a news conference after Petersen pleaded guilty. "America is safer. The Marshall Islands are safer."

Petersen admitted Friday that he paid for airline tickets and lodging for three pregnant women from the Marshall Islands for a “commercial purpose” — charging fees to broker the adoptions of the women’s babies. Prospective parents would pay a total of $35,000 to adopt a child.

He also pleaded guilty to communication fraud for failing to tell his clients that there was 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.

The human smuggling charges carry a maximum penalty of up to five years; the communications fraud is a maximum one-to-15 year sentence. He is expected to be sentenced in Utah on Nov. 13, after he pleads guilty and is sentenced in the federal court system in Arkansas.

It’s expected that the punishments handed down in the three states will run concurrent to one another.

Richard Hickson, the consular general for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said Friday that there are currently about 40 Marshallese women still stuck in the United States after Petersen brought them here to birth their babies before his arrest last August.

Some opted to keep their infants, while others went through the adoption process as initially planned with the help of Utah’s Refugee Immigrant Center, which provided lawyers, interpreters and support for the women to ensure they understood the process.

“He’s left a trail of destruction behind him,” Hickson said of Petersen. “There’s a whole pile of Marshallese women and children who are effectively stateless in the United States. They came for the foreign adoption that didn’t happen and now there’s a lot of ladies without families that are [having] difficulties.”

Petersen’s attorney, Scott Williams, said Friday evening that everyone involved in the adoptions acted voluntarily, and all of their questions were answered.

Williams said Petersen was trying to get benefits for the birth mothers in Arizona, but it wasn’t authorized by law. In Utah, his business practices were illegal because the birth mothers were not citizens, Williams said. He said his client has taken responsibility for his actions.

“Consider this,” he said, “while the state spent years allowing this to happen — which they claim was victimizing people — no one ever even bothered to ask Mr. Petersen to stop.”

The attorney general’s office began investigating the scheme in 2017, after a hospital staffer in Utah called its 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 boasted 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 the compact between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands.

Jini Roby, a professor emeritus at Brigham Young University, said Friday that the compact was created in the early 2000s after military families had been bringing Marshallese children home with them to the United States. Because of the regulatory process back then, it was a relatively easy process to do — until a compact was put in place banning visa-less travel to the United States for the purpose of adoption.

She estimated that between 700 and 800 Marshallese children had been brought to the United States before the compact was put into place.

Hickson said it’s likely that Petersen went undetected because he was paying for pregnant women to come to the United States, where it might have raised a red flag if a woman with a small child had been traveling instead.

“They weren’t noticed by the authorities,” he said. “Because obviously an adult can leave the Republic and into the United States and suspicion that she is coming for an adoption is not raised.”

Prosecutors believe Petersen went to the Marshall Islands for adoptions because he knew the language after serving a two-year mission there with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Chief investigator Leo Lucey said last year 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.”

Charging documents say couples told investigators that Petersen didn’t tell them 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.