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Press Release

Arizona Adoption Attorney Pleads Guilty To Alien Smuggling For Financial Gain

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Arkansas

Fayetteville, Arkansas – Acting U.S. Attorney David Clay Fowlkes for the Western District of Arkansas, Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch of the FBI Little Rock Field Office and Peter Kapoukakis, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, Miami Field Office announced today that Paul Petersen plead guilty to the offense of Conspiracy to Smuggle Illegal Aliens for Commercial Advantage and Private Financial Gain. The Honorable Timothy L. Brooks accepted the plea in the U.S. District Court in Fayetteville.

“This plea agreement is one more step on a long road towards putting an end to the illegal adoption practices that have long plagued the Marshallese community in our District,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Fowlkes.  “It is my sincere hope that this plea sends a strong message to those who would seek to take advantage of some of the more vulnerable members of our community.  We will continue to investigate these cases and will continue to seek justice for all the parties involved.  We will also continue to work to end this illegal adoption practice which is nothing more than a sophisticated scheme to not only take advantage of the Marshallese community, but also to swindle prospective adoptive parents out of large sums of money.”

According to the Plea Agreement filed in this case, the FBI, the DSS and local law enforcement, have been actively investigating the criminal activities of Paul Petersen, 44, of Mesa, Arizona, for several years. During the course of the investigation, law enforcement determined that the defendant, Paul Petersen, among other things, orchestrated the travel of several pregnant women from the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the Western District of Arkansas.  The purpose of this travel was for Petersen to arrange adoption of their children by families living in the United States.  

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is an island country near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, slightly west of the International Date Line.  In 1983, the United States entered into a Compact of Free Association (hereinafter, the “Compact”) with the RMI government.  The United States and the RMI signed an Amended Compact in 2003, which Congress codified at Public Law 108-188.  Section 141 of the Compact grants RMI citizens the ability to freely enter and take up employment within the United States.  Section 141(b) prohibits RMI citizens from entering the United States under the Compact agreement if their travel is for the purpose of adoption.

According to the Plea Agreement, the Defendant, Paul Petersen, is a licensed attorney who practices law in Arizona, Utah, and Arkansas.  During the course of the investigation, FBI and DSS agents discovered that Petersen used credit card accounts that he controlled to purchase airline tickets for several women, all citizens of the RMI who did not have official authorization to enter or reside in the United States, to travel from the RMI to the Western District of Arkansas.  This travel arranged and funded by Petersen was in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act because the women were all citizens of the RMI and were not eligible for admission into the United States under the terms of the Compact.  According to State of Arkansas Circuit Court records, the families who adopted these children paid Petersen significant sums of money for him to act as a legal facilitator of the adoptions.  Finally, also according to the Plea Agreement, witness interviews conducted by the agents investigating Petersen revealed that it was part of the conspiracy that Petersen’s co-conspirators offered the women $10,000 to induce them to travel to the United States and consent to the adoptions.

“By preying upon both pregnant women from the Marshall Islands and loving Arkansan couples who wanted to adopt children, Mr. Peterson acted in a despicable manner and profited off individuals who simply sought to enrich their families,” said FBI Little Rock Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch. “We were proud to work alongside our partners at the Diplomatic Security Service on this investigation, and we hope Mr. Peterson’s case will serve as a warning to others who seek to financially benefit from illegal adoption practices.”

"The Diplomatic Security Service would like to thank our partners in this case, including the RMI government,” said DSS Special Agent in Charge Kapoukakis.  “Together, we have prevented further victimization of Marshallese women and abuse of the Compact of Free Association between our countries that permits visa-free travel to the United States under certain conditions. The DSS remains firmly committed to leveraging our worldwide reach and partnerships to prosecute anyone who willfully violates federal law to exploit innocent and vulnerable families.”

Petersen’s sentence will be determined by the court at a later date. Petersen faces a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000 for alien smuggling.

The FBI and the DSS conducted the investigation. Acting U.S. Attorney Clay Fowlkes, Deputy Criminal Chief Kim Harris, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sydney Butler are prosecuting the case. The Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs of the Department’s Criminal Division also assisted in the investigation.

Updated June 24, 2020

Human Smuggling