Ex-Arizona Official Gets Six Years for Smuggling Pregnant Women Into U.S. to Sell Their Babies

Kate Briquelet
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Handout
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Handout

An Arizona man was sentenced to six years behind bars Tuesday for smuggling pregnant women into America as part of an illegal adoption scheme that operated in three states and helped to bankroll his luxurious lifestyle.

Paul Petersen, a Republican former Maricopa County assessor and adoption lawyer, pleaded guilty in June to paying expectant mothers from the Republic of the Marshall Islands—a chain of islands between Hawaii and the Philippines—to have babies in the U.S. and give them up to adoptive families in exchange for thousands of dollars.

During his sentencing hearing, however, Petersen denied knowing that his employees in the adoption fraud operation had coerced these women by threatening to take away their passports if they tried to back out of the deal.

“I did treat everyone in their situation, on all sides of the adoption, with respect,” Petersen told the court. “I did try to promote respect for Marshallese culture. I got into adoptions because quite simply I loved the Marshall Islands and the Marshallese people.”

“If even one of these beautiful ladies felt wronged, it’s one too many,” added Petersen, a father of four and a licensed attorney in Arkansas, Arizona, and Utah. He reportedly got involved in Marshallese adoptions in 1998 while working on the islands as a missionary through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks sentenced Petersen, 45, to 74 months in federal prison and $105,100 in fines for one count of “conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens for private financial gain.” Petersen’s sentence includes three years of supervised release after he leaves a federal prison in Arizona.

Prosecutors accused Petersen of falsifying records, lying to state court judges, and instructing the pregnant women to lie during court proceedings as part of the scheme. David Clay Fowlkes, first assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said Petersen also “manipulated birth mothers into consenting to adoptions they did not fully understand.”

In a sentencing memorandum filed this month, prosecutors said Petersen’s operation exploited poor women who didn’t speak English and threatened them if they tried to get out of the adoptions. They said the scheme helped to fund a lavish lifestyle for Petersen and his family which included multiple residences, trips to New York and California, luxury cars, and “a large residence in an exclusive gated community in Arizona.”

“The people who brought them to the United States threatened to call the police and prosecute them if they attempted to back out of the adoption proceedings,” the government added in the memorandum. “These circumstances prevented their escape as securely as if they were chained to a wall.”

The memorandum alleged the $10,000 Petersen offered the women was “an amount of money that they simply could not refuse for people that lived in poverty on a remote island.”

“Notably, however, the birth mothers actually received far less than they were promised and had ‘living expenses’ deducted from their promised payment, living expenses which consisted of them being housed in deplorable, crowded homes with other pregnant women,” prosecutors added in the document.

On Tuesday, Brooks said Petersen illegally transported “vulnerable” women in 25 to 99 separate cases, though only four instances are noted in the plea agreement. “Your side hustle in the adoption business was a criminal livelihood,” Brooks said.

The judge continued: “You had aspirations of going into politics. You wanted to have all of the nice things in life and that required money and somewhere you went astray. … You became complicit in selling babies.”

According to a superseding indictment from October 2019, Petersen, his alleged accomplice, Maki Takehisa, and others helped to transport four pregnant women and “conceal the true purpose of their travel” from U.S. officials as early as April 2014.

Per a 2003 agreement with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Marshallese citizens may enter the U.S. for employment but are prohibited from coming to America for the purpose of adoption.

In one case, Petersen paid for a woman identified as R.M.J. to fly to Arkansas in April 2014. The woman gave birth to a baby boy at a local hospital in July 2014, and six days later, a family in the U.S. adopted the boy during a proceeding that Petersen “filed in his capacity as a licensed attorney,” the plea agreement states.

Takehisa offered to pay this woman $10,000 for her travel and to consent to the adoption. R.M.J. returned to the Marshall Islands in August 2014, and the adoptive family paid Petersen $13,300 for his role in arranging the adoption. (The plea agreement does not state whether R.M.J. received the full $10,000 offered to her.)

Petersen also paid a woman named A.T. about $7,300 while she was in America to give up her baby boy. The woman stayed at a small residence in Dequeen, Arkansas with nine other pregnant Marshallese women in late 2014, and an adoptive family paid Petersen $27,000 for his work in securing the adoption of A.T.’s child.

Meanwhile, a woman referred to as R.J. flew to Arkansas in February 2015 and gave birth to a girl months later. She also stayed at the cramped Dequeen residence. A family paid Petersen $30,000 to arrange the adoption of the girl, and Petersen paid R.J. $10,300.

In a fourth instance, Petersen paid D.J. to fly to Arkansas in March 2015, and a family adopted her newborn boy in May of that year. The family paid Petersen $32,000, and he paid D.J. $10,800, the plea agreement alleges.

Fowlkes noted some of the women had doubts about the adoptions and were told they could no longer change their minds about giving up their babies.

He said Petersen “found a loophole that allowed him to run an adoption company with zero oversight.” Petersen brought women to the U.S. without a visa and made sure the babies were born in America so they’d automatically be citizens, Fowlkes said. Petersen and his agents also filed for state health-care benefits for the women, so he wouldn’t have to cover the women’s expensive hospital bills.

“The defendant did this for one reason and one reason only: money,” Fowlkes said, adding, “It was a get-rich-quick scheme hidden behind the slick veneer of a humanitarian operation.”

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