Former Arizona official already serving time in other states for adoption program is sentenced in Utah


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SALT LAKE CITY – A couple from Utah were delighted to welcome a baby boy by adoption.

Then the investigators made contact.

They were a criminal case against the lawyer who ran the adoption agency, alleging he was illegally bringing mothers from the Marshall Islands to Utah after he offered to pay them $ 10,000, then had little organized. or no prenatal care once in the hive state.

“It was supposed to be such a happy and joyful time for us to add another member to our family, thanks to the miracle of adoption,” Dan Christensen said Wednesday in Salt Lake City 3rd District Court. “Instead, it was so stressful and painful for us.”

Moments later, a judge sentenced Paul Petersen, a former Arizona elected official who admitted to running an illegal adoption program in three states, to at least one and up to 15 years in state prison from Utah. The parole authorities will determine the exact length of his sentence.

“Without a doubt, Mr Petersen, your actions have caused pain and suffering on many levels,” Justice Linda Jones told Petersen, 45. -a sentence of one year in federal prison in Arkansas, followed by a sentence of five years in Arizona.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office, which pursued the case, expects Petersen to eventually serve a sentence in Utah State Prison, although it is not yet clear how many time he will spend there, said spokesman Rich Piatt.

Petersen agreed to pay the state $ 50,000 to cover the costs of the investigation and prosecution, and not to practice law in the state or work on adoption proceedings during his sentence. Court records show he was struck off the bar in Utah last month.

Christensen said the child he and his wife adopted was on the verge of being stillborn, has learning difficulties and developed cavities which doctors attribute to a lack of prenatal care in the second. trimester. They can’t imagine life without the boy, he said, but wouldn’t have gone through with his adoption if they had known what they are doing now.

Citizens of the island nation have not been allowed to travel to the United States for adoptions since 2003, but Petersen deliberately failed to notify two adoptive parents of the ban so he could get an adoption contract, according to court documents. He bought plane tickets for three women who traveled from the Marshall Islands to Utah in 2017 and 2018, and owned the house each lived in and accepted $ 35,000 from those seeking to adopt their babies.

Assistant Attorney General Dan Strong said more than 60 women in total were brought to Utah as part of Petersen’s practice.

“They received poor prenatal care while they were here,” Strong said. “Some have not received any prenatal care.”

Several of the women did not fully understand what they were signing up for due to a language barrier, Strong said, and were paid much less than what had been promised. No less than a dozen shared a cramped home in West Valley City, where two slept directly on the floor. But Strong said Petersen assured others that he was doing business according to the book.

Neighbors and medical staff grew suspicious, and authorities in Utah began investigating calls to a human trafficking information line. Some of the women eventually proceeded with the adoption after the lawyers put them in touch with lawyers and interpreters, but others refused.

Petersen, dressed in an orange prison uniform and a white mask for the videoconference hearing, apologized to his family and those who used his adoption services.

“The last thing I ever wanted was for an adoption to be challenged,” said Petersen, who resigned his position in Arizona as a Maricopa County Assessor in January 2020. “I don’t. don’t think there were, in fact, and I’m grateful for that, but that doesn’t mean these feelings people have aren’t legitimate and shouldn’t be acknowledged. “

His defense attorney, Scott Williams, argued that Petersen had been portrayed as a villain but, aside from society at large, a pre-sentencing investigative report found no one was hurt.

“His family has been destroyed, and he is wiped out professionally and financially,” Williams wrote in court records before sentencing.

Petersen ran an adoption agency for more than 15 years, mainly involving biological mothers from the Marshall Islands, and other agencies used her model as a model, Williams wrote. He described his client as a “father” who has four young children and whose marriage fell apart in lawsuits in three states.

Investigators had known about Petersen’s practices for more than five years prior to his arrest. At least one of the adoptive families does not see itself as a victim and has been “thrilled” with Petersen’s services, Williams said, and they are not alone. But his supporters did not speak out for fear of negative repercussions from the public and the government, he alleged.

Jones sentenced Petersen to five years in Utah State Prison on each of three counts of human trafficking, a third degree felony and one to 15 years in prison for communications fraud , a second degree felony. She ordered that the accounts be executed simultaneously or at the same time.

Petersen had faced seven additional charges in Utah, but prosecutors agreed to drop them as part of plea bargaining. This is one additional count of human trafficking, three counts of sale of a child and two more of communications fraud, plus one count of illegal activity pattern.

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