Multi-State Adoption Fraud and Human Trafficking Operation Exposed

Paul D Petersen of Phoenix, Arizona as seen in an undated booking photo. [Photo credit: Maricopa County Sheriff's Office via AP]

On the evening of Tuesday, October 8th, Paul D. Petersen, 44, a lawyer that is licensed to practice in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas, as well as the Maricopa County assessor was arrested in California.  He is facing numerous felony charges in several states and as of October 11th, was in federal custody.


Petersen is being held on $500,000 cash bond and his next court appearance is scheduled for tomorrow, October 15th where he will be required to surrender his passport.


The investigation in Utah was started after a call came into the national human trafficking hotline in October of 2017.  Hospital workers began to notice that there was a sudden spike of Marshallese women coming into the hospital to give birth accompanied by the same woman, all placing their children up for adoption.


The Arizona Department of Public Safety began their own investigation in 2018 after a DPS trooper had a friend go to Petersen's law office in order to look into an adoption.  That friend reported back that they had concerns about the fees and the legitimacy of the operation.


Authorities involved in the investigation have gone on the record to state that the parents that adopted children through Petersen are not under investigation and have no reason for concern that their completed adoptions could be reversed.  They are being considered victims in this matter as there has been no information uncovered to date to led investigators to believe they had any knowledge of Petersen's operations.


One of Petersen's associates though, Lynwood Jennet, who was an employee of Petersen's law firm, is also facing charges for his participation.


"The commoditization of children is simply evil," said Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes.


According to reports, Petersen contacted pregnant women in the Marshall Islands and paid their travel expenses to get to the United States.  Once here, they were held in one of several locations in conditions described as some as a "baby mill," including women sleeping on mattresses on the floor with sometimes as many as a dozen women in a single home.


"Many of these mothers described their ordeal as being treated like property," U.S. attorney for the western district of Arkansas, Duane Kees said. "Make no mistake: this case is the purest form of human trafficking."


The women were allegedly paid $10,000 and $1,000 a month while they awaited their due dates, but went without prenatal care.  As their due dates approached, information was falsified in order to get them on medicaid so that they would have access to medical care.  There is speculation that Petersen's schemes could have cost Arizona alone in excess of $800,000 in medical expenses alone.


Families wishing to adopt allegedly paid between $25,000 and $40,000 resulting funds being transferred into a bank account in an effort for Petersen to hide his dealings.  In the course of two years, Petersen was moving over 2.7 million according to court documents.


In Utah, Petersen is being charged with 11 felony offenses, including human smuggling, sale of a child, and communications fraud.  An Arkansas grand jury has indicted him on 14 charges related to smuggling, wire fraud, mail fraud, visa fraud, and money laundering.


According to News 3 out of Fayetteville, Petersen faces 62 charges that span three years time and involve close to 75 adoptions.


Petersen's attorney, Matthew Long stated that he and his client disagree with the charges, stating that what he was engaged in were “proper business practices."


Petersen became familiar with the Marshall Islands and the Marshallese people when he served a two year mission there with the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Prosecutors say that he used associates there to recruit pregnant women.