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An Arizona official is facing charges in three separate states after authorities say he operated a massive adoption scheme that brought more than 40 pregnant women to the United States from the Marshall Islands to give up their babies in exchange for money.
Paul Petersen, the Maricopa County Assessor and an adoption lawyer practicing in Mesa, is now facing dozens of charges in three states connected to the alleged smuggling ring that spanned three years and involved 75 adoptions, The Associated Press reports.
Authorities believe Petersen brought dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the United States, allowing them to stay in a home he owned until they gave birth, then placing the babies up for adoption with American families, according to Fox News.
Many of the women were crammed into houses and were even forced to sleep on a mattress laid on a bare floor in one home, according to the AP. An adoptive family who later learned of the conditions referred to it as a “baby mill,” court documents show.
Petersen allegedly offered the pregnant women $10,000 each to place the babies up for adoption. He recruited the women through associates he met in the Marshall Islands while serving on a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, court records state.
In Utah, Petersen is now facing 11 second and third-degree felonies for the alleged scheme including human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud, state Attorney General Sean Reyes said Wednesday according to the news outlet.
"The commercialization of children is illegal and the commoditization of children is simply evil," Reyes told reporters.
He’s also facing a 32-count indictment in Arizona that includes charges for conspiracy, theft and forgery, The Arizona Republic reports. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office has accused Petersen of defrauding the state out of more than $800,000 by falsely claiming the women were residents of Arizona and illegally obtaining Medicaid services for them.
Authorities have also said Petersen violated the treaty agreement between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands. Under the current agreement, citizens of the Marshall Islands are able to come to the United States without a visa to work but are not allowed to travel to the United States for an adoption without obtaining a special visa.
In Arkansas—where Petersen is also facing charges including conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud—authorities said it wasn’t uncommon for at least a dozen pregnant women to be sharing one house.
“Many of these mothers described their ordeal as being treated like property,” Duane Kees, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Arkansas, said, according to the AP. “Make no mistake: this case is the purest form of human trafficking.”
Authorities say Petersen charged adoptive families between $25,000 and $40,000 for each adoption. He had about $2.7 million in a bank account for adoption fees in less than two years, court documents state.
Authorities believe the adoptive families in the case were victims as well and do not plan to pursue any charges against the families or remove any children from completed adoptions.
One adoptive mother from Georgia told Arizona station KTVK that she had reached out to Petersen after hearing rave reviews about him from friends. She also said she “trusted him,” given his position as a county assessor in Arizona.
“I thought there’s no way that this guy is not legitimate,” she said.
After contacting Petersen they were told that a baby had already been born in Utah that was available for adoption and the family was able to welcome their son into their family.
“He was actually a really good attorney, which is the really sad part about this,” she told the station. “I think greed is what destroyed him.”
Investigators in Utah began to look into Petersen after a call came in to a human-trafficking tip line in October 2017. Authorities said staff members at hospitals in Salt Lake City also reported an “influx” of women from the Marshall Islands giving birth and putting their babies up for adoption. The women were often accompanied by the same woman, the AP reports.
Petersen is currently being held on $500,000 bond.
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