12 Years of Smuggling Women and Selling Their Babies Only Got This Guy 6 Years in Prison

Paul Petersen organized the pregnant women's flights into Arkansas, Arizona, or Utah, where they'd stay with other pregnant Marshallese women at a home he financed.
December 2, 2020, 5:25pm
Paul Petersen appears in Maricopa County Superior Court, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Phoenix.
Paul Petersen appears in Maricopa County Superior Court, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Phoenix. (Tom Tingle/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool)

An Arizona adoption attorney who spent 12 years smuggling pregnant women into the U.S. and then selling their babies at a hefty profit has been sentenced to more than six years in federal prison and fined over $100,000.

On Tuesday, 45-year-old Paul Petersen received the first of what’s likely to be three different sentences from a federal judge in the Western District of Arkansas in connection to the adoption scheme involving women from the Marshall Islands, according to the U.S. Department of Justice

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Petersen was arrested in connection to the scheme in October 2019. At the time, he was an assessor for Maricopa County, but he resigned from that post in January 2020 and then pleaded guilty in June.

"He subverted what should be a joyous time for everyone into a baby-selling enterprise,” District Judge Timothy L. Brooks said Tuesday, according to USA Today. “The conduct Mr. Petersen engaged in violates public policy. We don't sell babies. That is the public policy of the United States of America."

For more than a decade, Petersen was able to operate his scheme by building a network of women who kept in touch with a co-conspirator in the Republic of Marshall Islands, according to USA Today. This individual was a point of contact for pregnant women who wanted to come to the U.S., and there were about 40 over the years, according to the Washington Post. After contacting them directly, Petersen covered the expenses of obtaining a passport and organized their flights into Arkansas, Arizona, or Utah, where the women would stay with other pregnant Marshallese women at a home he financed.

While the women stayed in the U.S., Petersen worked to falsify documents about their stay in the U.S. in order to secure Medicaid to cover the expenses of the child’s birth. Petersen would also confiscate the women’s passports to ensure they’d go through with the scheme, according to the Washington Post.

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With the baby’s care secured, Petersen charged adoptive families unaware of the scheme up to $40,000 for the adoption, telling them the cash would go toward covering the mother’s expenses. After the baby was adopted, Petersen would pay the woman less than $10,000 for their part in the scheme, pay for a flight to return them back home or to any state they desired, and pocketed the rest of the cash.

Aside from the obvious crime of smuggling pregnant women into the U.S. and keeping them in poor conditions, Petersen violated a 1983 agreement between the Republic and the U.S. barring people from traveling between the two countries to effectuate an adoption.

“The defendant, in this case, violated the laws of three states and two countries during the course of his criminal scheme,” U.S. Assistant Attorney David Clay Fowlkes said.

This is not the last court appearance for Petersen. The disgraced lawyer pleaded guilty in Arizona and Utah back in June and is awaiting sentencing in both states. He will have 14 days to appeal the sentence, according to USA Today.