SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News, KNWA) – An attorney in Utah and Arizona with ties Northwest Arkansas has been indicted in an adoption scheme.
Paul D. Petersen was charged with 11 felonies in Utah including human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud.
In a press conference on Wednesday, U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Arkansas DAK Kees said that Petersen faces an additional 19 felonies in the state of Arkansas.
Kees said that Petersen routinely practiced law in Arkansas. Since 2014, Petersen submitted fraudulent documents to Arkansas courts to try to conceal it.
According to Kees, dozens of Marshallese women would be confined to a single-family dwelling while pregnant.
Kees goes on to say that as many as four would be assigned to a room and sleeping in the floor.
Once they would give birth, the women would be returned to the Marshall Islands.
Kees said the women were, “treated like property,” and “purest form of human trafficking.”
Kees said if found guilty on all charges, Petersen would face 315 years in prison and a $5 million fine.
Petersen was arrested in Arizona Tuesday following charges by the Utah Attorney General’s Office.
Petersen is an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah and Arizona and is the elected County Assessor for Maricopa County.
The AG’s office alleges Petersen ran an illegal adoption scheme where he “recruited, transported, and offered payment to pregnant Marshallese women to give their babies up for adoption in the United States.”
The United States and the Marshall Islands have an agreement that prohibits this type of international adoption.
Investigators say Petersen “failed to disclose the compact and other material aspects of his scheme to adoptive parents who paid him to facilitate their adoptions.”
Petersen is believed to have transported more than 40 pregnant Marshallese women into Utah over the last three years.
He faces charges for related offenses in Arkansas and Arizona.
“Petersen’s illegal adoption scheme exploited highly vulnerable groups in two countries—the birth mothers and families in the Marshall Islands and the adoptive parents here in Utah,” said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes in a statement. “It is heartbreaking that these families from both countries were so cruelly manipulated.”
Chief Criminal Deputy Spencer Austin said investigators were first tipped off by concerned hospital workers cold-calling the human trafficking tip line.
“We always say, ‘If you see something, say something.’ I think these charges prove that if you do say something, we will listen. We will use every resource at our disposal to put a stop to these horrendous crimes,” said Austin.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office has set up a hotline to assist anyone affected by Petersen’s alleged offenses: 801-839-5640. Caseworkers with the Refugee and Immigrant Center – Asian Association of Utah are in place and ready to help any victims of this scheme.
The U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Arkansas Duane Kees will hold a press conference at 1 p.m. on Wednesday to discuss the arrest of Petersen.