Man accused of trafficking Marshallese babies pleads not guilty
Paul D. Petersen out on bond; trial set for Dec. 9
An Arizona man facing criminal charges across three states for trafficking dozens of Marshallese babies through an illegal adoption scheme posted $100,000 bail on Oct. 29.
Attorney Paul D. Petersen’s first trial is set for Dec. 9 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, though he also faces charges in Arizona and Utah.
On Oct. 28, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors also unanimously voted to suspend Petersen, who had been serving his second term as assessor. Although he has 10 days to appeal the 120 day suspension and loss of a $77,000 salary, Petersen is barred from entering his office.
Petersen served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the 1990s, and graduated from law school in 2002. Arizona authorities traced his involvement in adoptions back to 2005. The Federal Bureau of Investigation first began investigating him in 2017.
From November 2015 to May 2019, Petersen solicited dozens of pregnant Marshallese women, convinced them to fly to the U.S. to give birth and adopted their babies off to Christian couples in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas. Birth mothers were paid $10,000—minus travel and housing expenses—and promised their children would be better off.
At least 29 U.S. couples paid Petersen $35,000 to $40,000 for each baby.
Though illegal, these adoptions are not unheard of. Petersen was the subject of a 2018 investigation by Honolulu’s Civil Beat.
In a special report, Jessica Terrell explained "many of the birth mothers did not understand what they were agreeing to. In one heartbreaking study, more than 80 percent of birth mothers said they would not have followed through with the adoption if they had known their child would never return."
Adoptions in the Marshall Islands are not the binding contract they are in the U.S. legal system, and instead often occur between families as an act of community.
Because adoption records are sealed, there is no way of knowing how many Marshallese children have been adopted and under what circumstances.
Per the 1983 Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Republic of Marshall Islands, adoptions must be sanctioned by the islands’ Central Adoption Agency, although citizens may live and work in the U.S. without a visa—making it difficult to stop pregnant women from traveling to the mainland seemingly on their own volition.
Petersen also faces a civil lawsuit from 13 couples who were in the process of adopting children through him at the time of his arrest.
In order to ensure a birth mom has legal support and that her wishes are respected, Arkansas-based Attorney Josh Bryant said, she needs her own attorney.
“One of the biggest problems that we've seen is that these mothers will go to an attorney and then those attorneys will recruit adoptive parents,” he said. “The question is who it is that attorney represents and where do that attorney’s loyalties lie.”
Although Petersen completed the adoption process in the Land of Opportunity, most of the families lived out of state. Bryant is representing families in Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Alabama, North Carolina, and Kansas who came to Arkansas with the sole intent of adopting a baby.
In addition to Arkansas being home to the largest population of Marshallese outside of the Pacific, Bryant said they “oftentimes may not understand exactly what rights they have and what rights they don't have, making them an easy target.”
Bryant’s advice for mothers who are propositioned for adoption: “the first step should be to say no.”
“If she wants to place her child for adoption, I think that's fine, but she I think she would need to take the first step in choosing who her lawyer is going to be or who her adoption agency is going to be she needs to take the initiative in that,” Bryant said. “Don't let somebody else control how that process goes.”
As part of his pretrial release, Petersen must wear an ankle monitor, abstain from “excessive” alcohol consumption, and is prohibited from interacting with five other people accused of aiding and abetting in the trafficking operation. He is also banned from contacting the dozens birth mothers and families he has worked with over the years.
Thirty-nine-year-old Maki Takehisa, a Marshallese woman living in Arkansas who provided translator services to Peterson also faces jail time. She posted $5,000 bond on Oct. 7 and is represented by federal defender John Schisler.
At the time of his arrest, Petersen was providing legal services for Bright Star Adoption Agency in Mesa, Arizona. According to a statement on the company's website, Bright Star executive director Linda Gansler, "was as surprised as anyone when she learned through media outlets that Mr. Peterson had been charged criminally for his conduct related to adoptions of children whose mothers are from the Marshall Islands.”
Bright Star and Gansler deny any involvement in arranging travel for birth mothers or paying them, although the website advertises “financial support” for interested pregnant women.
Gansler resigned from her position on Oct. 20.
At his arraignment hearing on Oct. 29, Petersen pleaded not guilty to 19 federal charges including human trafficking for profit.
If found guilty, Peterson faces up to 315 years in federal prison and a $5 million fine.