Paul Petersen, an elected county assessor for Maricopa County who is also an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah and Arizona, was charged with 11 felony counts including human smuggling, sale of a child, communications fraud, and pattern of unlawful activity, the Utah Attorney General's Office announced Tuesday. He's accused of paying thousands of dollars to pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to travel to the USA, where they were crammed into houses to await giving birth for adoption.
The women were housed in homes Petersen owned and leased, a Utah Attorney General's Office arrest warrant affidavit obtained by PEOPLE states. Petersen faces 62 charges that span about three years and involve almost 75 adoptions.
Petersen's attorney, Matthew Long, defended his client's actions during a court hearing in Phoenix Wednesday. Prosecutors say he would then charge families $25,000-$40,000 per adoption, with court documents showing that two years of fees saw the racket bring in around $2.7 million in revenue.
Petersen served a two-year mission in the Marshall Islands for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Reyes said.
Michaela Montie said she created Shared Beginnings to "offer our services and support to expecting mothers who don't have anywhere to turn or adoptive parents who don't know what to do with this news".
The pregnant women stayed at homes throughout north-central Utah and came to the state in some cases just weeks prior to giving birth, prosecutors allege.
The expecting mothers were often crowded in the homes, with Marshallese women Petersen employed helping with things like translation, transportation, legal documents and applications for Medicaid benefits, prosecutors said.
Numerous women were crammed into houses and were even forced to sleep on a mattress laid on a bare floor in one home, according to the AP.
Petersen also faces similar charges in Arizona and Arkansas.
Petersen sold the house this spring as complaints mounted from neighbours in the working-class area in suburban Salt Lake City, said new owner Alanna Mabey. "It makes me sick to my stomach". Fayetteville attorney Andrea McCurdy is now representing all the birth mothers. "Make no mistake: this case is the purest form of human trafficking".
The Utah probe began after investigators got a call to a human-trafficking tip line in October 2017.
After the birth of the child, Petersen and Jennet would facilitate travel for the women to leave Arizona, the indictment says. While the compact allows citizens of the Marshall Islands to take up employment in the United States, it prohibits Marshallese citizens from entering the United States for purposes of adoption. "It is also worth repeating that despite what some may say to keep women in a specific adoption plan, no one is going to jail for getting help".