An elected official in Arizona has been indicted for his role in a scheme to recruit pregnant women overseas and sell their babies on the U.S. black market.
Paul Petersen, an adoption lawyer and county assessor in Maricopa County, Ariz. who was arrested on Tuesday, is alleged to have orchestrated an illegal scheme in which dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands were recruited to give birth in the United States, then sell their babies to adoptive couples for as much as $40,000. As many as 70 pregnant Marshallese women may have been involved, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors allege that Petersen has been running the scheme since as early as 2005, and that his victims number in the dozens. He is being charged with a total of 62 charges in three states, including Arkansas, Utah, and Arizona. The charges include wire fraud, human smuggling, and adoption fraud, among others.
According to court documents from all three states, Petersen started running the adoption ring as early as 2005. Petersen allegedly paid people in the Marshall Islands to find local pregnant women, then offered them $1,000 for every month they were pregnant, in addition to a $10,000 flat rate, to deliver their babies in the United States and give them up for adoption. After arriving in the United States, the women allegedly stayed at a residence owned by Petersen in Mesa, Arizona until they were ready to give birth. According to court documents, the women were subject to poor living conditions, with as many as 15 women sleeping on mattresses on the floor at one time. (In fact, at the time of his arrest on Tuesday night, Arizona police found eight pregnant women living in Petersen’s Mesa home.)
Adoptive couples reportedly paid Petersen anywhere between $26,000 and $41,000, a sum that Petersen said would also help cover the cost of the birth mothers’ medical expenses. All told, Petersen may have netted as much as $2.8 million between 2016 and 2018 for his role in the scheme, according to banking records.
Petersen’s scheme was reportedly uncovered in 2017, when an anonymous individual called in a tip to the FBI. But as early as 2006, a judge had questioned the legality of Petersen’s adoption practices, denying an Arizona couple’s petition to finalize the adoption of a Marshallese child. But that ruling was overturned by then-Arizona Court of Appeals judge Ann Scott Timmer, who ruled that the adoption was in the child’s best interest. Timmer is now an Arizona state Supreme Court Justice.
In a press conference following Petersen’s arrest on Tuesday, Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes said that both the birth mothers and the adoptive parents would be treated as victims, and the children whose adoptions had already gone through would stay with their adoptive parents. “We have no interest, none whatsoever, in interfering with any adoption that has already taken place,” said Reyes. “Protecting the victims…is paramount to us.”
An adoptive mother interviewed by Utah investigators claimed she had no idea that Petersen had orchestrated such a wide-ranging scheme, referring to it as a “baby mill.” Another adoptive mother interviewed by Phoenix CBS 5 said she had no idea that Petersen’s scheme was fraudulent, only discovering that was the case after receiving the hospital bills for the birth mother’s delivery, which were dated from before the adoption process had even been set up. “If we knew, we honestly would not have adopted our son,” she said.