An Arizona public official remains behind bars following accusations he masterminded a human trafficking and adoption fraud scheme, which reportedly spanned three states.
County assessor and adoption attorney Paul Petersen was indicted this week on 32 felony charges, including 28 counts of fraudulent schemes of practices, one of conspiracy, one of fraudulent schemes of artifices, one of theft, and one of forgery, according to an indictment obtained by Oxygen.com. He's been accused of making arrangements for pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to enter the U.S. to give birth and put their children up for adoption, despite it being against the law.
However, newly surfaced court documents appear to show that a Maricopa County Superior Court judge had called the legality of Petersen’s adoption services into question in 2006, according to KPHO-TV, local CBS affiliate.
Petersen supposedly had arranged for a pregnant Marshallese woman to fly to Mesa, Arizona, to give birth, but the judge later rejected the adoptive couple’s petition to finalize the process, according to the Arizona Republic. A court commissioner cited a U.S. law prohibiting citizens from the Marshall Islands from bringing their children into the U.S. to get adopted. However, the Arizona Court of Appeals later overturned the decision, ruling that the adoption was in the child’s best interest.
“We appreciate the juvenile court's well-expressed concerns about the manner in which this prospective adoption was arranged," Court of Appeals judges wrote in their decision.
Now some are questioning why it took more than a decade to bring legal action against the accused human trafficker.
“The judge has an obligation to report that lawyer to the state bar of Arizona,” family lawyer Kaine Fisher told Oxygen.com.
“He calls into the practice, denies the adoption, and then what — does nothing about it?” Fisher asked. “He denies the adoption but he doesn’t do anything to stop the practice.”
The Scottsdale lawyer said it’s troubling that it took years — and multiple red flags — before authorities took the allegations against Petersen seriously. He called the delay in legal action “shady.”
“It’s amazing to me that all these adoptions went through over the years,” Fisher said. “Nobody involved in this stepped up and said anything. You’ve got this high-profile public figure conducting these adoptions — I think people turned a blind eye, or assumed that what he was doing was right and they trusted him and believed in him. All the while he was committing these serious felonies. He was basically smuggling humans, and he was selling children.”
It’s unclear why authorities didn’t investigate Petersen then. The office of Arizona’s Attorney General didn’t respond to Oxygen.com’s request for comment.
Petersen was arrested on Tuesday. During a raid of his properties, eight Marshallese women were found at a property connected to the county assessor, authorities said at a press conference the next day.
Between November 2015 and May 2019, Petersen allegedly “facilitated travel” for 29 women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. for the purposes of giving birth and adopting their child out to American parents, the indictment also stated. Petersen supposedly charged $35,000 for facilitating an adoption.
“We believe most of the children that were born here were eventually adopted in other states,” Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich told reporters.
Petersen and his co-defendant Lynwood Jennet are also accused of fraudulently using state-funded healthcare to pay for the women’s delivery costs and medical expenses, which prosecutors said totaled nearly $1 million.
Officials noted that families who adopted children through Petersen are not under investigation.
Brnovich said state authorities are also investigating Petersen in Arkansas and Utah.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has called for Petersen’s resignation, the Arizona Republic reported. Petersen remains in custody on a $500,000 bond.
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for our Crime Time Newsletter and subscribe to our true crime podcast Martinis & Murder for all the best true crime content.