Embattled Arizona elected official now in federal custody
PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona elected official facing human smuggling charges over an adoption scheme is in federal custody.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Phoenix said Friday that County Assessor Paul Petersen was no longer in their jail.
It was not immediately known where he was transferred.
Petersen is accused of running an adoption scheme that involved illegally bringing pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to give birth.
He allegedly charged families $25,000-$40,000 per adoption and defrauded Arizona’s Medicaid system.
Prosecutors in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas have all filed charges that include sale of a child, fraud, forgery, money laundering and human smuggling.
Petersen’s attorney says he engaged in “proper business practices.”
County officials have called on Petersen to resign.
Arkansas court to hear 19 adoption scheme cases
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.
Wildfire drives thousands from California homes
LOS ANGELES (AP) — An aggressive wildfire in Southern California seared its way through dry vegetation Friday and spread quickly, destroying dozens of homes as tens of thousands of residents scrambled to get out of its way, authorities said.
The blaze broke out Thursday evening in the San Fernando Valley and spread westward, burning its way into hilly subdivisions on Los Angeles’ northern edge as terrified residents grabbed what they could and ran. One man went into cardiac arrest and died, authorities said.
Those who left included Edwin Bernard, who said he never saw the flames arrive so quickly or come so close to his home as this time.
He watched as the fire swept down a hillside, sizzling through dry grass and igniting trees and bushes and spitting embers over his home of 30 years. He and his wife fled in their car, leaving behind medication, photo albums and their four cats.
“It was a whole curtain of fire,” Bernard said Friday. “There was fire on all sides. We had to leave.”
The region has been on high alert as notoriously powerful Santa Ana winds brought dry desert air to a desiccated landscape that only needed a spark to erupt.
The Los Angeles fire broke out hours after flaming garbage in a trash truck sparked another blaze when the driver dumped his load to keep the rig from catching fire. But the dry grass quickly ignited and powerful winds blew the flames into a mobile park in Calimesa, about 75 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. About three-quarters of the 110 homes were wiped out and one resident died, fire officials said.
The two fires burned as power was restored to more than half the nearly 2 million residents in the northern part of the state who lost electricity after the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. switched it off on Wednesday to prevent a repeat of the past two years when its equipment sparked deadly, destructive wildfires during windy weather.
Officials had worried that gusts might topple trees on and blow other vegetation into transmission lines and start wildfires, but the move was widely criticized for targeting areas that faced no danger, and for disrupting so many lives.
On Friday, the outage was blamed for the death of a man dependent on oxygen who died about 12 minutes after the utility pulled the plug, El Dorado County Fire Chief Lloyd Ogan said.
Jury sentences man to death for Texas shooting that killed 6
HOUSTON (AP) — A man who prosecutors say was driven by vengeance when he fatally shot six members of his ex-wife’s family in Texas, including four children, was sentenced Friday to death, a decision the lone survivor of the attack says will help her let go of “hurt and anger.”
Jurors sentenced Ronald Lee Haskell after deliberating for little more than four hours. The jury had to choose between life in prison without parole or a death sentence.
The same jury last month convicted Haskell of capital murder in the 2014 killings of Stephen and Katie Stay at their home in suburban Houston. The jury rejected his attorneys’ efforts to have him found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Haskell killed the couple and four of their children in the living room of their suburban Houston home in 2014. A fifth child, 15-year-old Cassidy Stay, was shot in the head but she survived by playing dead.
After the sentence was announced, Cassidy Stay, now 20, read a victim impact statement from the witness stand, saying she had initially had felt “hurt and anger” after learning that Haskell felt no remorse for killing her family.
“My closure was the hope that you would feel bad ... I’m letting go of my emotions and I’m giving it to God because he’ll take care of me and he’ll help me through this,” said Stay, adding she would continue to live “my life with happiness” and forget about Haskell.
During closing arguments in the punishment phase of Haskell’s trial earlier Friday, Harris County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor Kaylynn Williford described the terrifying scene as Haskell fulfilled his plan to kill his ex-wife’s family.
Williford described how Haskell shot 4-year-old Zach in the shoulder — an injury he could have survived — and said the frightened child scurried in the chaos to his father on a couch, burying his head in his father’s shoulder for protection.
But by that point, Zach’s father was already dead, Williford said.