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Sentence affirmed for human trafficker Petersen in Marshallese adoption scheme

by Ron Wood | January 11, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.
FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2019, file photo, Paul Petersen, an Arizona elected official accused of running a multi-state adoption scheme, leaves court following an initial appearance on charges filed in the state in Salt Lake City. Petersen filed a motion Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, asking the U.S. District Court in Fayetteville, Ark., to delay his trial for 10 months. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday affirmed the sentencing of an adoption attorney who ran a human trafficking ring in which he paid pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to come to the United States and give up their babies.

Paul Petersen, of Mesa, Ariz., received a prison sentence of six years and two months from U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks in December 2020. Brooks also levied a $100,000 fine on Petersen.

Petersen appealed both the sentence and the fine, arguing Brooks shouldn't have gone above the sentencing guideline ranges. A three-judge panel said both the sentence and fine were reasonable.

Brooks found the guidelines "failed to adequately account for Petersen's role as an attorney and public official, his role as a leader and organizer of the offense, and the duration of his crime," according to the opinion. "The district court did not commit a clear error of judgment."

Peterson was federally indicted in October 2019, accused of running the baby-selling operation in three states: Arkansas, Arizona and Utah.

The former Maricopa County, Ariz., assessor pleaded guilty to charges in all three states, facing state charges in Arizona and Utah and a federal indictment in Arkansas, where his law firm maintained a Fayetteville office.

At the sentencing hearing, U.S. Attorney Clay Fowlkes said Petersen ran a "get-rich-quick scheme under the shiny veneer of a humanitarian operation." Petersen charged $10,000 upfront, per adoption, plus expenses and another $25,000 upon completion, according to court documents.

Investigators estimated he handled a minimum of 30 Marshallese adoptions a year in Northwest Arkansas.

His indictment left 19 birth mothers and the prospective adoptive parents in legal limbo. Those cases were dealt with in Washington County Circuit Court under sealed records.

Petersen kept as many as 12 pregnant women at a time in a single-family home in Springdale as part of his adoption practice, according to court documents. As many as 10 women at a time lived at another home in De Queen, according to statements made at Petersen's plea hearing.

Petersen pleaded guilty in Utah state court to three counts of human smuggling and one count of communications fraud, all felonies. He pleaded guilty on June 18 to state charges of Medicaid fraud in Arizona for signing up Marshallese birth mothers for prenatal care and delivery when such benefits are reserved for permanent Arizona residents.

The women taken to Utah to give birth received little or no prenatal care, prosecutors said in court documents. Their passports also were taken while they were in the U.S. in a step to assert control over them, authorities said.

  photo  FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2019, file photo, then-Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen leaves court in Salt Lake City. The former elected official from metro Phoenix accused of running an illegal adoption scheme in three states involving women from the Marshall Islands pleaded guilty Thursday, June 18 , 2020, to fraud charges. Petersen, a Republican who served as Maricopa County‚Äôs assessor for six years until his resignation in January, faces a maximum of 17 years in prison for his guilty pleas on Arizona charges of fraudulent schemes and forgery. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Print Headline: Petersen sentencing upheld on appeal


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