A prostitution camp in the Marshall Islands provided many of the birth mothers caught up in former Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen’s allegedly illegal adoption business, according to statements attributed to his co-defendant in a warrant to seize his assets.
When she was arrested in August, Lynwood Jennet, Petersen’s co-defendant in his criminal case and his fixer in the Marshall Islands, told police that the majority of women she had recently helped Petersen recruit came from a prostitution camp where girls as young as 15 or 16 did sex work in exchange for food and housing.
Jennet said when the girls at the prostitution camp would get pregnant, she would receive a call (the name of the caller was redacted in the documents) and she would contact Petersen.
“Lynwood was asked who runs the camp, Lynwood said it was the government or businessmen,” Department of Public Safety Detective Samuel Hunt, who interrogated Jennet following her arrest, said in the sworn affidavit, which was recently unsealed.
Jennet described the camp as a place where “young girls wait for fishermen to come and dock to do shopping and what not.”
The camp was on the main island of the Marshall Islands, a small island country in the Pacific Ocean where Petersen did his Mormon mission and later ran his adoption business in violation of a treaty between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands that allows islanders to visit the U.S. for any reason without needing a visa, except they cannot come to the U.S. to offer a baby for adoption.
That provision of the treaty exists because of a long history of exploitation of Marshallese women by American adoption agencies. Petersen charged upwards of $35,000 for his adoption services, and paid the mothers, through a third party, around $10,000 per baby, though he would often skim expenses out of the final payments, the affidavit stated.
Petersen stands accused in three states of running a human smuggling scheme that brought pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S.
Months before news broke about Petersen’s multi-state indictment, investigators built a tax and Medicaid fraud case against Jennet, who then spilled the beans on the details of her relationship with Petersen in an interrogation room in Mesa with no attorney present.
According to the affidavit, she was informed of her Miranda rights and she asked investigators what would happen if she refused to talk until an attorney was there. Investigators said they would end the interview and asked her to decide if she wanted to proceed.
The records show she sat in silence for a few minutes and agreed to talk without an attorney present and hand over her cell phone so the officers could have access to her messages to Petersen and his paralegal, Megan Wolfe.
During the interrogation, Jennet detailed the work she did for Petersen and the pregnant women, which included driving them around to appointments, interpreting and getting them food and supplies. Jennet was paid handsomely for her services, earning more than $200,000 between 2016 and 2018, including $103,000 in 2018 alone. She did not file individual income tax returns during that time. The documents state if she had filed those taxes, her income would have been too large to qualify for the state’s Medicaid program, Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
In the conversation, Jennet relayed the information about her coming to America in 2006. She moved from the Republic of Marshall Islands to Arkansas in 2006, but said she was not pregnant at the time. She said she had 11 children, and that she used Petersen to place two of the three children she offered for adoption. The records state after she gave up the children for adoption, friends and other families reached out to her to find out who she used, thus beginning her contracting work for Petersen.
Jennet told investigators that at the time of the questioning, there were four birthmothers staying at the fourplex Petersen owned in Mesa and one of the women was pregnant from being raped, which she said was investigated by the Republic of Marshall Islands.
Department of Public Safety agents originally became aware of the adoption scheme from a potential adoptive parent who grew suspicious of Petersen’s operation.
Petersen, nor his attorney, Kurt Altman, could be reached for comment on his potential involvement and knowledge that the women came from a prostitution camp.
Since the indictment in October, Petersen was suspended from his elected position and subsequently resigned in January. He still stands trial in three states on 62 felony counts, 32 in Arizona alone. Petersen’s Arizona trial was postponed as of March 10.
Investigators also discovered that Petersen is the statutory agent for Democratic former Sen. Ed Ableser’s company, Ableser Family Counseling.
While the documents didn’t shed light on what, exactly, Petersen’s role was with Ableser’s company, Arizona Corporation Commission records show that when he organized the limited liability company in 2009, while he was a state representative, Ableser used Petersen as his statutory agent.
A statutory agent is essentially a business’ legal point of contact, and agrees to accept paperwork in case the business is sued.
Ableser didn’t return a call on March 26 to answer questions about how the two knew each other — Petersen wasn’t in elected office then– and the extent of Petersen’s involvement in his business. Ableser recently had his professional counseling license revoked by the Board of Behavioral Health Examiners after he violated state statute by engaging in “conduct or practice that is contrary to recognized standards of ethics in the behavioral health profession or that constitutes a danger to the health, welfare or safety of a client as it relates to the following section of the ACA Code of Ethics.”
The complaint states he kept deficient records from a husband and wife who were sent to his counseling through their church, including by not obtaining a consent for treatment form from the couple. He signed a consent agreement with the board last November stating that he will stop practicing counseling and not apply for a new license for at least five years.
Arizona Capitol Times, in conjunction with the ASU First Amendment Clinic, intervened in the Petersen case to unseal search and seizure warrants and other corresponding records.
The clinic is designed to give law students hands-on experience helping journalists flex their First Amendment rights and hold the government accountable.
The students — in the case of the Petersen warrants, Bobby Niska and Olivia Otter — are fully authorized by the Arizona Supreme Court to represent clients and practice law under the supervision of Gregg Leslie, the clinic’s director.
The four warrants listed in the state’s discovery were sealed except for one, and Niska and Otter made the argument that all warrants are presumed open in Arizona.
The Attorney General’s Office, which is leading the investigation into Petersen, did not contest the unseal motion.
The seizure warrant and probable cause form provided details of the Petersen investigation and justification for seizing his assets, which included homes and more than $1 million in cash. The records were unsealed and our reporters received a redacted copy on March 26.
-Kurt M. Altman, PLC, is a former state and federal prosecutor and Alison Holcomb is director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.
This story was originally posted on the Arizona Capitol Times website.