A Republican elected official in Arizona was indicted on human trafficking charges after prosecutors say he ran a human smuggling ring that lured in pregnant Pacific Island women by promising them thousands of dollars.
Once in the U.S., the women allegedly were “crammed into houses to wait to give birth, sometimes with little to no prenatal care,” according to The Associated Press.
Paul Petersen, Maricopa County’s assessor, faces both federal and state charges in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas on counts of human smuggling, sale of a child, fraud, forgery and conspiracy to commit money laundering — all tied to the adoption scheme he ran over a period of three years, resulting in about 75 adoptions.
When investigators raided Petersen’s properties in Phoenix, they found eight pregnant women from the Marshall Islands, with seven more waiting to give birth in Utah.
Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes said Petersen served a two-year mission to the Marshall Islands with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the AP reported that his fluency in Marshallese led to his recruitment by an adoption agency while Petersen attended law school.
According to prosecutors, Petersen offered many women $10,000 to put their babies up for adoption and covered their travel expenses in the days or months leading up to their due dates.
He put them up in his properties, where living conditions were often cramped, and hired Marshallese women for “helping with translation, transportation, legal documents and applications for Medicaid benefits.”
Prosecutors also alleged that the pregnant women were provided with little to no prenatal care in Utah, in one house sleeping on mattresses on a bare floor.
Duane Kees, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Arkansas, said, “Many of these mothers described their ordeal as being treated like property. Make no mistake: This case is the purest form of human trafficking.”
Petersen reportedly charged adoptive parents $25,000-$40,000, bringing in “about $2.7 million into a bank account for adoption fees in less than two years.”
Authorities said they do not believe the pregnant women were misled to think their babies would be given back to them at some point and stressed that they view the adoptive parents as victims, too, noting that none of the adoptions would be undone.