Paul David Petersen is an attorney and government official in Arizona who is accused of running a multimillion-dollar illegal adoption scheme.
Prosecutors said Petersen and at least two associates recruited dozens of pregnant women from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, paid them to give up their babies for adoption, and charged American families up to $40,000 to adopt each child. Officials said Petersen pocketed approximately $2.7 million over the course of the scheme.
Petersen is facing felony charges in Utah and Arizona as well as multiple federal charges. The dozens of charges include human smuggling, sale of a child, communications fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering.
According to investigators in Utah, Petersen is accused of smuggling more than 40 women from the Marshall Islands into the state over a three-year period to have their babies there. In Arizona, Petersen is accused of bringing at least 28 women there to give birth.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich clarified during a news conference on October 9 that the families who adopted the children are not under investigation and did nothing wrong. The Marshallese women are also considered victims and are not being charged.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Prosecutors Say Paul Petersen & His Associates Bribed Pregnant Marshallese Women to Give Up Their Babies For Adoption
Paul Petersen is accused of orchestrating an elaborate scheme to make large profits off of illegal adoptions. Two of his associates are also facing charges. Lynwood Jennet, who worked in Petersen’s law office, is charged in Arizona. Maki Takehisa is listed as Petersen’s co-defendant in the case filed in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Arkansas. Takehisa is identified in the court document as also being a citizen of the Marshall Islands.
Federal prosecutors say that Petersen and his associates began the adoption scheme in 2014. The indictment alleges that Petersen and Takehisa would seek out pregnant women in the Marshall Islands and offer them money to give up their babies for adoption. According to court documents in Arizona cited by KPNX-TV, the Marshallese women were paid $1,000 per month while they were in the U.S. They were also offered up to $10,000 for an adoption, but according to criminal complaints, several of the women said they received far less.
Prosecutors said that Petersen used forged documents to make it look as if the women were Arizona residents. Officials said Petersen obtained medical coverage for the women through Arizona’s Medicaid system, costing state taxpayers more than $800,000.
The American parents who adopted the children paid up to $40,000 for Petersen’s services, according to court documents. They were reportedly told that part of the large fee covered the pregnant woman’s medical costs, even though this turned out to be false.
2. Large Groups of Pregnant Women Stayed at Properties Petersen Owned In a System Described as a ‘Baby Mill’ By Witnesses
Paul Petersen’s alleged operation has been described as a “baby mill.” Large groups of pregnant women would stay at properties Petersen owned before giving birth, according to investigators.
One couple in Utah told police that they visited Peterson’s property in West Valley City after adopting a child. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the couple said that 15 women were living there and that they slept on mattresses on the floor.
Eight pregnant women were discovered at Petersen’s house in Mesa, Arizona, when troopers with the Department of Public Safety executed a search warrant on October 8, 2019. A neighbor told the Arizona Republic that she saw several pregnant women coming in and out of the house for about a year but initially thought they were extended family members.
Petersen was arrested on October 8 and booked into the Maricopa County jail. A cash bond was set at $500,000. Prosecutors insisted that Petersen posed a flight risk.
3. Paul Petersen Has Been Working as an Adoption Attorney Since 2005
Paul Petersen is a licensed attorney who focused his law practice on facilitating private adoptions. Petersen earned his law degree from the University of Arizona in 2002 and was licensed to practice law in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas.
According to his profile with the Arizona bar, Petersen worked for an international adoption agency before earning his law degree. He said it was during this experience that he “discovered his passion for adoption and forever families.”
The Law Office of Paul D Petersen PLLC was located in Mesa, Arizona. The firm’s website appears to have been either suspended or deleted. The link brings up a white screen with a message that the site is unavailable.
Petersen has also been serving as the elected Maricopa County Assessor since 2014. His bio on the government website was still active as of October 10. His profile states that during his more than 15 years as an adoption attorney, he had assisted “adoptive and birth parents in hundreds of adoption cases.”
A Georgia woman who adopted a baby through Petersen told KTVK-TV, “He was actually a really good attorney, which is the really sad part about this. I think greed is what destroyed him. A lot of my friends raved about him. And then him being county assessor, trusted him. I thought that there’s no way that this guy is not legitimate.”
4. Petersen Is a Member of the Mormon Church & Served as a Missionary in the Marshall Islands For Two Years
Paul Petersen is familiar with the Republic of the Marshall Islands because he lived there for two years. Petersen claimed on his bio with the Arizona Bar that he was the “only attorney involved with the Marshallese community in the United States who is fluent in the Marshallese language… Paul lived in the Marshall Islands for two years, and therefore is familiar with their language, customs, and unique cultural perspective on adoption.” Petersen’s Facebook page states that he previously lived in the capital city of Majuro.
Petersen is a practicing Mormon. The Arizona Republic cited court documents that stated that Petersen was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During his two years in the Marshall Islands, he served as a missionary for the church.
Many of the American parents who adopted Marshallese children are also members of the Mormon church, according to the Phoenix New Times.
Paul Petersen wrote on his bio for the Maricopa County Assessor website that he is a “fifth-generation Arizonan” and a “lifelong resident of Mesa, Arizona.” He is married with four young children. The Washington Post reported that Petersen is a member of the Arizona Republican Party.
5. A Treaty Between the U.S. & Marshall Islands Restricting Adoption Was Established to Prevent Marshallese Women From Being Exploited
Under federal law, it is illegal for citizens from the Marshall Islands to travel to the United States for the sole purpose of giving up their babies for adoption. The United States and the Marshall Islands first entered into an agreement called the Compact of Free Association in 1983, as explained in the federal indictment against Petersen.
In 2003, the agreement was amended to include the stricter regulations concerning adoption. The change was made in order to prevent Marshallese women from being exploited, as explained by the Phoenix New Times. Adoption from the Marshall Islands increased substantially during the late 1990s. The New Republic reported that in 1998, fewer than 2,000 babies were born in the Marshall Islands; it was estimated that 143 of them were put up for adoption.
Many of the Marshallese women who associated with Petersen reportedly didn’t know that by putting their babies up for adoption, they would sever all ties with the children, according to an investigation by the Honolulu Civil Beat.