A disturbing October 2019 story out of Arizona’s Maricopa County prompted readers to ask us whether it was legitimate:
An Arizona elected official ran a human smuggling scheme that promised pregnant women thousands of dollars to lure them from a Pacific Island nation to the U.S., where they were crammed into houses to wait to give birth, sometimes with little to no prenatal care, prosecutors allege.
Paul Petersen, the Republican assessor of Arizona’s most populous county, was charged in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas with counts including human smuggling, sale of a child, fraud, forgery and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The charges span about three years and involve some 75 adoptions. Investigators also found eight pregnant women from the Marshall Islands in raids of his properties outside Phoenix, and several more are waiting to give birth in Utah, authorities said.
“The commoditization of children is simply evil,” said Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes.
The adoptive parents are considered victims along with the birth mothers, and no completed adoptions will be undone, authorities said.
Petersen’s attorney, Matthew Long, defended his client’s actions during a Tuesday court hearing in Phoenix as “proper business practices” and said they disagreed with the allegations.
Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said Petersen should resign from his elected position determining the taxable value for properties in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its suburbs.
There have been numerous hoaxes and false stories around human trafficking, but in this case, Petersen was truly arrested. He now faces charges in three states — Arizona, Arkansas, and Utah — for charges including conspiracy to commit money laundering, forgery, fraud, human smuggling, and the selling of children.
The investigation against Petersen began in Utah in October 2017. He is accused of orchestrating a scheme in which pregnant women in the Marshall Islands were recruited and flown to the United States to give birth. They were also offered as much as $10,000 each to give up their children for adoption. According to the AP’s story, the charges against Petersen involve 75 adoptions over the course of a three-year span.
The Arizona Republic reported that Petersen was suspended from his duties after a unanimous vote by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. An audit of Petersen’s work-related office and cell phone revealed that he made “questionable international and out-of-state calls,” including five calls to Jamaica and seven calls to the Philippines.
The audit also showed that between January 1 and October 2 2019, Petersen accessed the parking garage available to county government personnel just 53 times, and spent around four hours per day in the office.
Investigators reportedly found more than a dozen during a home on properties Petersen owns in Utah and Arkansas. Court documents described one home as a “baby mill.” One federal prosecutor, Duane Kees, said that many of the women told investigators that they were treated like property.
“Make no mistake: this case is the purest form of human trafficking,” said Kees, who represents the western district of Arkansas.
Petersen was suspended from his job for 120 days without pay, as the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors does not have the authority to permanently remove him from his office.