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