A public official in Arizona has been arrested in connection with charges that he ran a multimillion-dollar scheme in which he smuggled pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to profit from their newborn babies. Authorities say Maricopa County Assessor Paul Peterson’s fraudulent adoption enterprise left a trail of fraudulent documents and violated U.S. and international laws.
Peterson operates an adoption law firm. For years, he has connected American families seeking to adopt with women from the Marshall Islands — but state prosecutors in Arizona and Utah say Peterson falsified documents and lied about the mothers’ residency so he could enrich himself.
Federal prosecutors in Arkansas on Wednesday unsealed a criminal indictment against Peterson and an associate, Maki Takehisa, on smuggling, visa fraud and mail fraud charges.
In Arizona, Peterson has been indicted on theft, fraud and forgery charges for allegedly claiming pregnant women from the Marshall Islands were residents of Arizona in order to obtain medical care for them. He’s also accused of violating an international agreement between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands that allows Marshallese residents to travel and take jobs in the U.S. — but which bans them from entering the U.S. for the purpose of putting a child up for adoption.
In separate charging documents, Utah prosecutors accuse Peterson of human smuggling for “adoption-related exploitation in the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” claiming Peterson has targeted birth mothers in the Marshall Islands as well as adoptive parents in the U.S.
In Utah, prosecutors said Peterson transported more than 40 pregnant women from the Marshall Islands and charged tens of thousands of dollars for their newborns to be adopted in the U.S. Each time, state authorities say, he lured the pregnant women to the U.S. with payments of $10,000.
During that same period, $2.7 million flowed into Peterson’s bank account, according to Utah authorities.
The women sometimes came to Utah just days before they were expected to give birth. They stayed in a home owned by Peterson, according to the charging documents. At times, Peterson allegedly housed as many as 15 pregnant women in the same home, leading one tipster to describe Peterson’s business as a “baby mill.”
Parents interviewed by Utah investigators said Peterson and his associates lied or omitted information about the adoptions, including that the pregnant women were paid for the adoptions and that the process wasn’t allowed under international law.
“It is heartbreaking that these families from both countries were so cruelly manipulated,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement.
The Marshall Islands, which gained full independence in 1986, is an island nation of some 53,000 people that was formerly the site of U.S nuclear weapons tests.
Neither Peterson nor his lawyer has replied to requests by NPR for comment.
According to a website for Peterson’s firm, the average cost he charges for completing an adoption of a Marshallese child is $30,000 to $40,000.
The site touts Peterson’s expertise in arranging adoptions from the Marshall Islands, citing testimonials from families that cite his “genuine passion” and praise him for “making a difference in this world.”
The site says Peterson’s firm is uniquely suited to carry out adoptions in the Pacific Island nation.
“Paul is the only attorney involved with the Marshallese community in the United States who is fluent in the Marshallese language. Because of this fact, Paul has been successful in hundreds of Marshallese adoptions across many different states,” according to Peterson’s site. It adds, “Paul lived in the Marshall Islands for two years, and therefore is familiar with their language, customs, and unique cultural perspective on adoption.”
In November, The Honolulu Beat published an investigation entitled “Black Market Babies” that focused on Peterson’s question-raising practice of flying pregnant women from the Marshall Islands and connecting their newborn children with American adoptive parents.
The publication interviewed women from the Marshall Islands who said they never expected to sever all ties with their children before handing their kids over to parents in the U.S. The investigation called Peterson the most active Marshallese adoption lawyer in America.