Arizona-based lawyer Paul Petersen allegedly ran a full-service adoption scheme that offered clients with babies from the Republic of the Marshall Islands with an average price of $30,000 to $40,000 each, arguing that the funds would go to legal fees and supporting the children’s mothers.
However, prosecutors later learned that Petersen utilized a fraction of the costs to smuggle several dozen pregnant Marshallese women into the United States. He then offered to pay them $10,000 after they gave birth. The 45-year-old lawyer pleaded guilty in June to conspiring to commit human smuggling.
A Western District of Arkansas federal judge sentenced Petersen to six years in prison and afterward three years of supervised release on Wednesday. The lawmaker was also given a fine of more than $100,000 for his crimes and is currently waiting to be sentenced in Utah and Arizona.
During a Tuesday virtual hearing, U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks said, “He subverted what should be a joyous time for everyone into a baby-selling enterprise.” The judge added that Petersen’s actions violated public policies of not selling children.
Court documents detailed how Petersen conducted his human trafficking scheme for more than 12 years. The lawmaker’s acts are a direct violation of a 1983 compact between the Marshall Islands and the U.S. that banned Marshallese people from traveling to America for adoption purposes.
The first assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, David Clay Fowlkes, said Petersen took advantage of a legal loophole to run his illegal adoption scheme. He said, “This unique case merited the strong sentence ordered by the Court today.”
Authorities said Petersen falsified documents to bring the pregnant women into the country by disguising them as residents from various states. Prosecutors said the lawmaker also ordered the women to lie about their husbands to officials.
Legal experts also found that the women’s passports were taken from them, removing any option of going back home. The confiscation forced the victims into following Petersen’s orders or risk being left alone.
Petersen wrote on his website that he had a “passion in assisting Marshallese birth families with their adoption plans” after he lived there for two years during his 1998 Mormon mission trip. However, prosecutors said the lawmaker used his knowledge of the country’s culture to trick women into trusting him.
Last month, prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum that Petersen bribed the pregnant Marshallese women with the $10,000 because it was an amount that they could not really make themselves. However, they said the victims did not receive the entirety of the payment because some of it was used to pay for their necessities and living expenses.
The documents detailed how the women were kept in low-grade, crowded homes and were not given any prenatal care.
During Petersen’s virtual sentencing on Tuesday, he said that he treated everyone on both sides, the pregnant women and the adoptive family, with respect. He said, “If even one of these beautiful ladies felt wronged, it’s one too many.”
Prosecutors said the lawmaker used the profits from his illegal scheme to fund his lavish lifestyle, living in a large house in Mesa, Arizona. Petersen also had several vacation homes and would frequently travel to California and New York, and bought expensive cars, Washingtonpost reported.
In October 2019, officials indicted Petersen in Arkansas, Arizona, and Utah, and gave him 14 days to appeal his sentencing on Tuesday. Public records showed he was disbarred and forced to resign as Maricopa County’s assessor early this year. Arkansas prosecutors requested judges to give Petersen a 10-year sentence.
One of Petersen’s attorneys, Scott Williams, expressed his disagreement with the judge’s sentencing of the lawmaker. He said that describing what the suspect did as selling babies was labeling the children as contraband.