But in reality, federal prosecutors learned, Petersen used a portion of the money to smuggle dozens of pregnant Marshallese women in to the United States and offered them $10,000 once the baby was born. In June, Petersen, 45, pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit human smuggling in Arkansas and made similar guilty pleas in Arizona and Utah, where he was also licensed to practice law and also carried out the schemes.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in the Western District of Arkansas sentenced Petersen to six years in prison followed by three years of supervised release and a fine of over $100,000. He awaits sentencing in Utah and Arizona.
“He subverted what should be a joyous time for everyone into a baby-selling enterprise,” U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks said at the virtual hearing on Tuesday, USA Today reported. “The conduct Mr. Petersen engaged in violates public policy. We don’t sell babies. That is the public policy of the United States of America.”
For more than 12 years, Petersen, a Republican who served as the assessor for Maricopa County, Ariz., trafficked dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands for the adoptions, according to court documents, an illegal action given a 1983 compact between the country and the United States that forbids Marshallese people to travel for the purpose of adoptions.
“He exploited a legal loophole and used it to run an International adoption business outside the necessary oversight from the United States or the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” David Clay Fowlkes, the first assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said in a news release. “This unique case merited the strong sentence ordered by the Court today.”
The scheme, authorities said, involved falsifying documents, such as asserting the women were residents of the various states so they could claim Medicaid, and lying to judges about how long they were staying in the country. Prosecutors said Petersen instructed the women to lie about the baby’s father, saying they weren’t married or that the father did not want anything to do with the child. In many cases, investigators found, the women were married.
Court documents also said the women’s passports were confiscated, ultimately hindering them from returning home, which was 5,000 miles away, if they changed their minds and coercing them into going through with the adoption.
On his website, Petersen said he had a “passion in assisting Marshallese birth families with their adoption plans” and had moved there in 1998 for a two-year Mormon mission trip. He also spoke the language and was well versed in the country’s culture. But prosecutors said he used this to his favor, misleading the women and taking advantage of them being largely poor and uneducated.
“The $10,000 payment that the defendant offered the Marshallese birth mothers was essentially, an amount of money that they simply could not refuse for people that lived in poverty on a remote island,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed last month.
Ultimately, prosecutors said, the women would not receive the whole $10,000 payment. A portion of the money was deducted to pay for living expenses, such as “being housed in deplorable, crowded homes with other pregnant women,” according to court documents. The women also had hardly any prenatal care, another fact withheld from the adoptive parents.
During the virtual sentencing hearing on Tuesday, Petersen said he treated everyone “on all sides of the adoption, with respect,” the Daily Beast reported.
“If even one of these beautiful ladies felt wronged, it’s one too many,” Petersen added.
Petersen used the funds from the illegal scheme to finance a lavish lifestyle, according to court documents. He lived in a large house in a gated neighborhood in Mesa, Ariz., had multiple vacation homes, took frequent trips to California and New York, and bought luxury cars.
Petersen was indicted in Arkansas, Arizona and Utah in October 2019 and has 14 days to appeal Tuesday’s sentencing. He was disbarred, according to public records, and resigned as Maricopa County assessor in January. Prosecutors in Arkansas had requested a 10-year sentence. A co-defendant in the Arizona case also pleaded guilty in December 2019 to multiple charges including theft and fraud.
Scott Williams, one of Petersen’s attorneys, took issue with the judge’s description of Petersen and his adoption operation as profiting off babies.
“We respectfully disagree with the perspective of the sentencing judge,” Williams said. “By describing what Mr. Petersen did as ‘selling babies,’ a position that even the government didn’t take, the judge stigmatized every happy family created by the adoptions, and essentially branded the adopted children as contraband. A shame.”