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story.lead_photo.caption Cars sit outside a house Thursday at 2006 Cardinal Drive in Springdale that federal investigators say was used to house pregnant women who were lured from the Marshall Islands to give birth and then give up their babies for adoption in violation of a treaty between the islands and the U.S. government. - Photo by Andy Shupe

At least 13 pregnant women near delivery are in legal and financial limbo along with the would-be adoptive parents after the lawyer who brokered the adoptions was indicted, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.

Thirteen couples filed suit in Washington County Circuit Court after Arizona attorney Paul D. Petersen was arrested Tuesday on charges regarding illegal practices in arranging hundreds of adoptions, including the 13 pending adoptions cited in the suit. Petersen, 44, of Mesa, Ariz., faces 62 state charges in two states and federal charges in Arkansas.

"There are a lot of frightened mothers out there who are expecting," said Joshua Bryant of Rogers, a longtime advocate for overhauling adoption and an attorney for the couples. "There are a lot of frightened adoptive parents who are looking forward to adding to their families and wondering if they have had a failed adoption."

An emergency hearing is set for 9 a.m. today in the civil suit asking Washington County Circuit Judge Doug Martin to take the adoption cases out of Petersen's hands. The suit asks Martin to administer these cases or appoint a special master. Petersen is legal counsel for the birth mothers.

"There are two mothers right now in labor who had adoption plans until two days ago," Bryant said at a 4:30 p.m. news conference.

Petersen faces charges that include a 19-count federal indictment on accusations of running a baby-selling operation in Arkansas, Arizona and Utah. He is licensed to practice law in all three states, according to the federal indictment. The pregnant women in Arkansas are the latest of dozens who Petersen flew illegally from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific to Arkansas since at least 2014, the federal indictment says.

"It cannot be assumed or reasonably believed that Mr. Petersen will be able to continue representing biological parents with whom the plaintiffs have been matched for adoption," said the lawsuit.

Petersen worked with Marshallese associates to recruit pregnant islanders to give their children up for adoption in return for money, the federal indictment alleges.

None of the would-be adoptive parents or the hundreds of past adoptive parents who dealt with Petersen's firm over the years is under investigation, U.S. Attorney Duane "Dak" Kees said in a news conference Wednesday about the federal indictment. Investigations have found no evidence adoptive parents were aware of the illegal scheme, Kees said.

The Utah attorney general's office established a hotline to assist anyone affected by Petersen's alleged offenses. An investigator with the office said Thursday that the hotline had received more than 30 calls since officials announced Petersen's arrest Tuesday night, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Prosecutors in Utah aren't questioning completed adoptions, Attorney General Sean Reyes said. His office does not anticipate any overturned adoptions as a result of the case.

However, investigators noted that some adoptions through Petersen's firm are still pending and people involved in those adoptions are "very concerned."

The 13 couples who filed the Washington County suit have paid thousands of dollars in legal fees and support for the birth mothers, their lawsuit states. The adoptive parents are not identified in the lawsuit, but are from several states, the suit says. Petersen charged up to $40,000 for an adoption, according to investigators. The federal indictment includes fraud counts, alleging Petersen inflated expenses for the birth mothers. Those expenses were paid by adopting couples.

Another eight pregnant women besides the 13 in Arkansas were found in a home Petersen owned in Mesa, according to authorities there. The Arizona Department of Public Safety found the women Tuesday night when they served a search warrant at the home, department Director Frank Milstead said.

Petersen faces 32 state criminal counts in Arizona. That state's attorney general accuses Petersen of defrauding Arizona's Medicaid system for medical expenses of Marshallese women he took there. Another 11 criminal counts were filed by Utah's attorney general against Petersen in that state, including human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud.

Charles Robbins, a spokesman for Kees' office, said Thursday that more information about who concerned parties should contact will come out today.

The would-be adoptive parents in the Arkansas lawsuit have thousands of dollars of their money still in trust accounts controlled by Petersen's firm for adoptions that may not occur, the lawsuit states. The suing couples ask that the remaining funds be placed in a trust.

Adoptions completed before the criminal charges were filed are likely to stand under Arkansas law if they are challenged now, Bryant said in an earlier interview. To date, no Marshallese birth parents who used Petersen have challenged an adoption on the basis of fraud, Kees' office confirmed Thursday.

The Marshall Islands are a former territory of the United States that sits about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii. Marshallese are allowed to travel freely to the United States under a treaty between the two countries. There is a specific exclusion, however, if the sole purpose of the trip is to deliver a child for adoption. Adoption-only trips are specifically forbidden by a 2003 amendment to the treaty.

Kees estimated that 30 to 35 adoptions a year were done by Petersen's firm in Arkansas alone. As many as 12 pregnant Marshallese women at a time were housed at the home rented by Maki Takehisa, 39, of Springdale. Takehisa, a Marshall Islander, also was indicted in four of Petersen's 19 federal counts as a co-conspirator.

The house where the pregnant women stayed in Arkansas is at 2006 Cardinal Drive in Springdale. The owner, according to Washington County tax records, is Spike Werda of Tucson, Ariz. Werda said in a telephone interview Thursday that the home had belonged to his mother and he had hired a property management company to oversee it. He ordered that company to evict the remaining residents Thursday afternoon after finding out how it had been used, he said.

The house appeared occupied Thursday. Two unidentified men and one woman arrived about 12:30 p.m. at the residence and were asked for comment.

"There's no story here," said one of the men.

The other man was carrying an infant in a carrier.

Two strollers sat on the porch.

Petersen's federal charges alone carry a theoretical maximum sentence of 315 years in prison and $5 million in fines, according to Kees. The charges include violations of federal statutes restricting travel for adoptions plus related wire and mail fraud. The federal investigation is ongoing, Kees said, not ruling out more charges.

Petersen is the elected assessor for Maricopa County, Ariz., that state's largest county. The county's board of supervisors has called on Petersen to resign, according to the Arizona Republic newspaper.

He remained in the Maricopa County, Ariz., jail Thursday in lieu of a $500,000 cash bond on the Arizona charges. He will appear in federal court in Fayetteville later this month, tentatively on Oct. 29, according to Kees. His initial trial date in federal court in Fayetteville is Dec. 9.

Calls to Petersen's attorney and Petersen's office in Arkansas were not returned Thursday.

Thursday's lawsuit also names Megan Wolfe of Fayetteville, a paralegal employed by Petersen.

"On further information and belief, since Mr. Petersen's arrest, she has informed adoptive and/or biological families that all pending adoptions are to continue as per usual," the lawsuit says of Wolfe. The suit asks Wolfe to be ordered to stop.

"To allow the defendants to continue operating those cases would be to put the plaintiffs and the biological parents with whom the defendants matched them in an extreme state of uncertainty regarding the future of their case, the legitimacy of the biological parents' consent to the adoption and the overall propriety of their adoption plan," the lawsuit claims.

Petersen is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who learned to speak Marshallese while on a two-year missionary trip there, according to the Arizona Republic newspaper.

The federal charges were filed in Arkansas because the federal investigation began here after numerous complaints about Petersen's practices, according to Kees.

"What Mr. Petersen didn't know is that there was a whole community keeping an eye on things," said Melisa Laelan, director of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, an advocacy group for islanders.

"Judges, lawyers, journalists, advocates all knew something was going on for years and kept looking. He underestimated the power of community."

Advocates as far away as Hawaii and the Marshallese government were aware of the unusually high number of adoptions of Marshallese newborns in Arkansas, she said.

Metro on 10/11/2019

Print Headline: Lawsuit asks judge to oversee adoptions

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