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An Arizona attorney who was the focus of a Civil Beat investigation in November for arranging black market adoptions involving pregnant women from the Marshall Islands has been indicted in a multi-state investigation involving authorities in Arkansas, Arizona and Utah.
Paul Petersen faces state charges in Arizona and Utah as well as federal charges in Arkansas. On the 19 felony counts brought by the U.S. attorney in Arkansas alone, Petersen is looking at a maximum of 315 years and a fine of $5 million.
In press conferences this morning in the three states, authorities described a scheme over several years to entice Marshallese women to the U.S. in violation of a treaty between the two nations.
The Arizona Attorney General indicted Petersen, who is also the elected assessor of Maricopa County, on 32 counts including conspiracy, fraud, theft and forgery. The charges say that Petersen and one of his fixers, Lynwood Jennet, arranged for Marshallese women to fly to Arizona for adoption and then, in some cases, return directly to the Marshall Islands, violating a treaty between the two nations. The two are also charged with falsely obtaining state benefits, presumably for the Marshallese birth mothers.
His home, office and other properties in the Phoenix area were raided. Eight pregnant Marshallese women were living in one property owned by Petersen, authorities say.
In Arkansas, U.S. Attorney Dak Kees said Petersen told Marshallese women to lie to U.S. Customs officials about their reason for traveling to the U.S. Once here, the pregnant women lived in overcrowded conditions, sometimes four to a room or on the floor without a bed.
“Make no mistake, this is the purest form of human trafficking,” he said.
Petersen charged adoptive couples $35,000 to $40,ooo, authorities said. But the Marshallese birth mothers only got about $10,000 — sometimes less, after the costs of travel, health care and housing were siphoned off.
While fixers in illicit Marshallese adoptions have been indicted in recent months, Petersen’s case represents the first time that one of the lawyers who arrange such adoptions has faced criminal consequences.
Civil Beat’s investigation showed how, despite reforms two decades ago to give the Marshall Islands control over all international adoptions, U.S. attorneys such as Petersen were ignoring a treaty between the two nations to fly pregnant women to the U.S. to hand over their newborns to American couples. Many Marshallese birth mothers said they did not know they’d be severing all connections to their children, a form of adoption largely unknown in their culture.
A Civil Beat reporter visited a four-bedroom split level house in a suburb of Salt Lake City that Petersen bought in 2017 to house pregnant women flown from the Marshalls. At any one time, 10 or more lived at the house, one of the residents told the reporter.
Petersen arranged for the plane tickets of the women and covered their expenses while they lived in the house in West Valley City. His activities appeared to violate the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands, which bars Marshallese women intending to place a child for adoption from traveling to the U.S. without a visa. Instead, all international adoptions were supposed to go through a central authority in Majuro, the Marshallese capitol.
As a young Mormon missionary in the Marshall Islands, Petersen learned to speak Marshallese, and made lasting contacts. An international adoption agency recruited him because of his fluency in Marshallese while he was still a college student, and he travelled to the islands to arrange adoptions.
Many of his current clients also are Mormon and learn of him through friends and relatives.
“Around here, he is the only name I’ve heard of when it comes to Marshallese adoptions,” Idaho resident Candis Schow told Civil Beat.
Early on, Petersen focused on adoptions in Arkansas, where he was to be charged Wednesday, but recently started operating more intensively in Utah, where he passed the bar exam in 2018.
At Petersen’s house in Utah, a pregnant woman named Marje Anjain told a Civil Beat reporter that she had been to Utah a year before for another adoption through Petersen. She contacted him through Jauwa Simon, a relative, who worked as a facilitator for Petersen in Utah and supervised the women at the house.
A man who said his name was Reggie said that Petersen covered women’s airfare and living expenses, and that Simon sometimes accompanied them on flights from Majuro, the Marshallese capitol, the the U.S.
Employees at a hospital in the Salt Lake City area told Civil Beat they were concerned about a surge of Marshallese women coming to give birth with no previous pre-natal care, all accompanied by Simon. One nurse said many of the women did not have official identifications, or their ID names did not match the ones they used in conversation.
One social worker was so concerned she urged adoptive parents to hire independent translators, writing in an email that anyone hired by Petersen “has a conflict of interest and should not be a translator … Please do not turn a blind eye to anything that is questionable, unethical, and/or immoral for the promise of having a baby.”
In Arkansas, at least one Petersen client was convicted for adoption fraud. Meryann Lomae had been working with a different attorney when she made a deal with Petersen and a different adoptive couple instead.
Petersen is one of the most active adoption lawyers handling babies from the Marshall Islands.
Petersen and his paralegal, Megan Wolfe, were listed as prosecution witnesses but never had to testify about their role in Lomae’s change of attorneys because she pled guilty before going to trial.
Lomae was one of several Marshallese birth mothers in Arkansas convicted of fraud for switching adoptive couples, and some question why attorneys were not held accountable as well.
Two weeks ago, Maki Takehisa, one of Petersen’s fixers in Arkansas, was charged with arranging for pregnant women to fly from the Marshall Islands to place their children with American couples in violation of federal law and the Compact of Free Association. One Marshallese woman lured to the U.S. was ripped off for thousands of dollars and another was forced to live in overcrowded conditions with no bed, according to the criminal complaint.
Civil Beat’s November story identified her as a one-time fixer for Petersen, although their relationship ended at some point.
Petersen declined to answer questions from Civil Beat in November. But his attorney, Matthew Long, noted that his adoptions and actions as a lawyer were scrutinized by many regulatory agencies, bar associations and judges.
Those entities “found no issues and the adoptions that have been completed were all done with the approval of the courts,” Long said. “Mr. Petersen has complied with the law.”
But Long would not directly answer whether Petersen was arranging for pregnant Marshallese women to fly to the U.S. for adoptions.
“I did not make a statement one way or the other,” Long said. “I said laws have been complied with.”
Shortly after he was elected to the $76,000-a-year county assessor’s job in 2013, Petersen took some heat for driving an Audi to his public servant job. So he started commuting in a white Jaguar instead.
“I was told to get a new car, so I did, and now I’m getting flack for that, too,” he told the Arizona Republic.
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