PHOENIX -- An Arizona elected official 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.
Paul Petersen, the Republican assessor of Arizona's most populous county, 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 charges span about three years and involve some 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, authorities said.
"The commoditization of children is simply evil," said Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes.
The adoptive parents are considered victims along with the birth mothers, and no completed adoptions will be undone, authorities said.
Petersen's attorney, Matthew Long, defended his client's actions during a Tuesday court hearing in Phoenix as "proper business practices" and said they disagreed with the allegations.
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, Reyes said. He was later recruited by an international adoption agency while in law school because of his fluency in Marshallese, according to a 2013 Phoenix Business Journal story.
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, according to the court records.
The expecting mothers were often crowded in the homes, with Marshallese women Petersen employed helping with things like translation, transportation, legal documents and applications for Medicaid benefits, prosecutors said.
Women got little to no prenatal care in Utah, and in one house slept on mattresses laid on bare floors in what one shocked adoptive family described as a "baby mill," according court documents.
Petersen sold the house this spring as complaints mounted from neighbors in the working-class area in suburban Salt Lake City, said new owner Alanna Mabey.
She was told it had been used as a rental, and since purchasing it she has found trash like dirty diapers in the bushes, she said. The news about how prosecutors say expecting mothers were treated there is "horrible," she said. "It makes me sick to my stomach."
In Arkansas, it wasn't uncommon to find a dozen Marshallese mothers on the verge of giving birth in one house, said Duane Kees, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Arkansas.
"Many of these mothers described their ordeal as being treated like property," Kees said. "Make no mistake: this case is the purest form of human trafficking."
Arkansas has one the largest concentrations of Marshallese immigrants in the U.S. and the women would then be flown there or back to the Marshall Islands after giving birth, authorities said.
Petersen charged families $25,000-$40,000 per adoption and brought about $2.7 million into a bank account for adoption fees in less than two years, according to court documents.
Petersen's Mesa, Arizona, home is worth more than $600,000 and located in an affluent, gated community.
The Utah probe began after investigators got a call to a human-trafficking tip line in October 2017. Staff at several hospitals in the Salt Lake City area would eventually report an "influx" of women from the Marshall Islands giving birth and putting their babies up for adoption, often accompanied by the same woman.
The scheme defrauded Arizona's Medicaid system of $800,000 because the women had no intention of remaining in the state when they applied, according to Arizona prosecutors.
Under a compact between the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Marshallese citizens can enter the U.S. and work without a visa, unless they're traveling for the purpose of adoption, authorities said.
Petersen has faced troubles with his adoption practices in the past. An Arizona juvenile court judge in 2016 denied a couple's request to adopt a child born to a Marshallese woman because he feared the arrangement set up by Petersen had violated that country's law. A court of appeals reversed the decision, saying no Marshallese approval was necessary.
Authorities do not believe the women were misled into believing their children might be returned at some point.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said adoptive parents who went through Petersen's agency have nothing to worry about.
"No one's going to go back and redo adoptions or any of that kind of stuff," Brnovich said.
Associated Press writers Lindsay Whitehurst and Morgan Smith in Salt Lake City, Astrid Galvan in Phoenix, Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.