Paul Petersen, the assessor of Arizona’s most populous county, 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. Petersen, a Republican, 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 Associated Press reports. The charges span about three years and involve 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. “The commoditization of children is simply evil,” said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.
The adoptive parents are considered victims along with the birth mothers, and no completed adoptions will be undone. Petersen’s attorney, Matthew Long, defended his client’s actions as “proper business practices.” 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. Petersen served a two-year mission in the Marshall Islands for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was later recruited by an international adoption agency while in law school because of his fluency in Marshallese. Prosecutors say Petersen used associates there to recruit pregnant women by offering many of them $10,000 each to give up their babies for adoption. Petersen would pay for the women to travel to the U.S. days or months before giving birth and live in a home that he owned until delivering the baby.