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Sean D. Reyes
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Paul Petersen Pleads Guilty in Marshallese Adoption Fraud Case

June 19, 2020


Petersen Also Convicted in Arizona and Arkansas of Various Felonies

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH –   Today, former Maricopa County Arizona Assessor Paul Petersen pleaded guilty in Utah’s Third District Court to three counts of Human Smuggling and one count of Communications Fraud in an illegal adoption scheme case that extended to three states and the Marshall Islands. 

Listen to the press conference with more details on this case and plea deal here:

Watch the press conference below.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office led the investigation into a business Petersen owned that involved recruiting, transporting, and paying Marshallese women to place their babies for adoption in the U.S.  The scheme extended to the states of Arkansas, which has a large Marshallese population and Arizona, where Petersen lives.
“Today, Utah is safer. The rest of America and our friends in the Marshall Islands are safer. Today, justice begins to be served as Mr. Petersen will be held accountable for his crimes while his many victims are given some closure in the aftermath of this tragedy,” said Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes. “We’ve sent a clear message. Whether you are committing fraud, human smuggling, trafficking or any related crimes, we will aggressively protect Utahns and come after you.”

Attorney General Reyes is asking for the maximum sentence to each of these charges which includes up to 15 years in prison, a $50,000 fine, forfeiting his law license and future ability to practice or facilitate adoptions in Utah.  Petersen will also face separate penalties in Arizona and Arkansas. He pleaded guilty Thursday to Medicaid Fraud-related crimes in Arizona and will serve between three and twelve years in prison. He is expected to plead guilty to Harboring Aliens for Financial Gain (a federal crime) in Arkansas and serve up to ten years in federal prison.  He will serve the federal sentence first and the sentences will run concurrently.
“Convicting Paul Petersen of four serious felony charges is a just and encouraging resolution of the state’s criminal case,” said Dan Strong, Assistant Attorney General and SECURE Section Director. “Between the sentences in all three states, we are confident Petersen will serve a substantial prison term—a stronger result than any jurisdiction could likely have achieved individually. We are especially proud to have achieved this outcome without putting the victims in this case through a difficult trial that would have involved wrenching testimony on sensitive family issues. We hope this conviction and sentence gives these victims some closure, and that it will deter Petersen and others like him from flouting international law, exploiting vulnerable mothers, and defrauding parents seeking to adopt.”
An international compact between the United States and the Marshall Islands prohibits Marshallese citizens from traveling to the United States for purposes of adoption. During his guilty plea, Petersen admitted that he knowingly transported Marshallese women into the United States, knowing they were not United States citizens, and did so to facilitate adoptions. Petersen also admitted he did not inform the American couples seeking to adopt these children about the international restrictions on Marshallese adoptions, and that he omitted this information to obtain the adoption payments.
These kinds of cases are complex, troubling and the crimes have a significant impact on the victims,” said Professor of Law Paul Cassell at the S.J. Quinney School of Law at the University of Utah and a former U.S. District Court Judge. “I have personally been involved in negotiating resolutions in these situations through the legal system and believe that this is a just resolution and will deter future violations of law and will provide a just punishment.”

Attorney General Reyes expressed gratitude to all those who dedicated time and effort in this case: “I’m extremely proud of the tireless work our Attorney General investigators, prosecutors, victim advocates and community partners have done on this case. Utah led out on the investigation which lasted well over a year and our prosecutors’ close working relationship with Arizona and Arkansas, will lead to a collective result that no state alone would likely have been able to obtain.  I thank our state and federal partners and the Republic of the Marshall Islands for their cooperation and support on this complex case.”


Watch the press conference below:

Arizona Elected Official Charged with Human Smuggling, Sale of Children

October 9, 2019

Today, the Utah Attorney General’s Office held a press conference to discuss the details of a case involving an alleged illegal adoption scheme and the subsequent 11 felony charges filed against Paul Petersen, an elected County Assessor for Maricopa County Arizona. Petersen was arrested in Arizona Tuesday evening.

Listen to the press conference below:

The files against Petersen include Human Smuggling, Sale of a Child, Communications Fraud, and Pattern of Unlawful Activity.

Allegedly, Petersen recruited, transported, and offered payment to over 40 pregnant Marshallese women to place their babies for adoption in the U.S. Due to a long history of adoption-related exploitation in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, adoptions between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands are governed by an Interstate Compact that prohibits this type of international adoption.

“The commercialization of children is illegal, and the commoditization of children is simply evil,” said Attorney General Sean D. Reyes at the press conference.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office was first made aware of this case after a tip through the AG’s human trafficking tip line from concerned hospital workers in 2017. The AG’s Office worked in conjunction with multiple agencies out of Arkansas, Arizona, and the Marshall Islands. Petersen faces similar charges in both Arizona and Arkansas, making this a multi-state and international investigation.

Attorney General Reyes and AG prosecutors emphasized that there is no interest to “unwind” adoptions that have already taken place.

Daniel Strong, SECURE Strike Force Lead Prosecutor, said, “We don’t anticipate adoptions being overturned, and we are not seeking to overturn any adoptions.”

“Protecting the victims, as in all our cases, is paramount to us,” said Attorney General Reyes, mentioning the birth mothers and families, the children, and the adoptive parents who are equally classified as victims in this case. “We have resources available for all the victims and we will continue to provide these resources to all of the victims throughout this case.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by this case are encouraged to call the hotline set-up by the Attorney General’s Office: 801-839-5640. This hotline is supplied with investigators 24/7 with a Marshallese translator.

Watch the video of the press conference below:

Read the official release below:

October 8, 2019

Multiple Charges Filed in Three States

SALT LAKE CITY – This week, the Utah Attorney General’s Office charged Paul D. Petersen with eleven felony offenses, including Human Smuggling, Sale of a Child, and Communications Fraud. Petersen is an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah and Arizona and is the elected County Assessor for Maricopa County, Arizona. He was arrested in Arizona Tuesday evening.

Petersen is alleged to have run 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. Due to a long history of adoption-related exploitation in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, adoptions between the United States and the Marshall Islands are governed by an Interstate Compact that prohibits this type of international adoption. In addition, Petersen was charged with communications fraud after he allegedly failed to disclose the compact and other material aspects of his scheme to adoptive parents who paid him to facilitate their adoptions.

Petersen is alleged to have transported over 40 pregnant Marshallese women into Utah over the last three years as part of the scheme. 

The Utah Attorney General’s Office worked closely with authorities from Arizona, Arkansas, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands in parallel investigations of this scheme. Petersen faces charges for related offenses in Arkansas and Arizona.

“While Mr. Petersen is entitled to a presumption of innocence, our investigation uncovered evidence that he has committed horrible crimes,” said Attorney General Reyes. “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.”

“It is heartbreaking that these families from both countries were so cruelly manipulated,” Reyes added.

“This case first came to us from concerned hospital workers cold-calling our human trafficking tip line,” said Chief Criminal Deputy Spencer Austin. “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.”

Attorney General Reyes wishes to thank those who came forward to report these crimes, as well as the many different agencies who assisted in this international investigation. Most importantly, the Attorney General thanks the victims of this scheme, for sharing their stories with our investigators.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office has set up a hotline to assist anyone affected by Petersen’s 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.