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Judge decides 19 adoption cases will be ruled individually in human trafficking accusation

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas judge ruled Friday that the court will decide individual outcomes to 19 statewide adoption cases against an Arizona elected official accused of human trafficking.

Paul Petersen, a Republican county assessor in Arizona, was arrested Tuesday for running what authorities call a human smuggling scheme. He’s accused of paying thousands of dollars to pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to travel to the U.S., where they were crammed into houses to await giving birth for adoption.

He was charged with human smuggling, sale of a child, fraud, forgery and conspiracy to commit money laundering in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas. Petersen faces 62 charges that span about three years and involve nearly 75 adoptions.

Washington County Circuit Court Judge Doug Martin ordered during the emergency hearing that all statewide adoption cases against Petersen will be decided in his court, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. Martin also ordered that the court will take control of all other pending adoptions at Petersen’s law firm, which represented the birth mothers. Fayetteville attorney Andrea McCurdy is now representing all the birth mothers.

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.”

Petersen, 44, charged families between $25,000 and $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. Prosecutors say Petersen paid pregnant women $10,000 each to give up their babies for adoption.

Petersen’s attorney, Matthew Long, defended his client’s actions during a Tuesday court hearing in Phoenix, Arizona, as “proper business practices” and said they disagreed with the allegations.

The adoptive parents are considered victims along with the birth mothers, and no completed adoptions will be undone, authorities said. Investigations have found no evidence adoptive parents were aware of the illegal scheme, Kees said.