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Hunch Unravels Immigrant Wedding Scam

Circuit Court Clerk David Bell tipped off police about the sham marriages, triggering a nearly four-year investigation.
Circuit Court Clerk David Bell tipped off police about the sham marriages, triggering a nearly four-year investigation. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

As more Ghanaians arrived, Acquah wanted to help them stay. Better yet, he thought, he could make money doing it by finding strangers to marry them quickly after their visas expired.

Informally, he named his business "the program." When a fellow Ghanaian called, Acquah would charge the immigrant $3,000 to $3,500. Two employees were Acquah's "contacts" and helped find U.S. citizens willing to get married for money. Acquah split the profit with his contact, who paid the U.S. citizen $500.

Acquah set up shop in his government office, using his government-owned fax machine to communicate about illicit marriages.

Word of the scheme spread to immigrants even before they left Ghana. "Those who were coming over here knew where to find an apartment, where to find a job and where to find a spouse," said one law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

The business became so lucrative -- Acquah has admitted pocketing $200,000 -- that it spawned competitors. One key rival was Eric Amoah, a Ghanaian immigrant whose own fraudulent marriage to a U.S. citizen had been arranged by Acquah.

A short, balding man with a calm demeanor and five children, Amoah, 43, came to the United States in 1999. Marriage fraud helped put him through pharmacy school, and he worked as a pharmacy technician at Prince William Hospital in Manassas, even as his marriage business continued to mushroom.

Amoah put out word among the U.S. Ghanaian community, which grew from 20,889 in 1990 to 101,169 in 2004, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. At his five-bedroom house in Woodbridge, Amoah threw elaborate parties. At one such gathering, he met Markey Simpkins, a supervisor at a Home Depot in the District.

Simpkins became a contact and asked co-workers if they wanted to marry an immigrant for money. Those interested would get to meet Amoah or another Ghanaian marriage arranger. Simpkins pocketed $50 per introduction.

Abena Nkrumah heard about Amoah when she needed an operation for abdominal problems. One way to get health insurance, her doctor's office suggested, was to marry a U.S. citizen.

At an Alexandria shopping center, Amoah and Nkrumah bonded through their shared Ghanaian heritage. "He told me he can help me get married," said Nkrumah, a health-care worker, as she entered her guilty plea last month. She told U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III that she could not have stayed with her sham husband, saying he smokes. Ellis smiled.

Occasionally, the men and women would decide they liked each other and would stay married. Far more often, they lived separate lives before reuniting, however briefly, at immigration offices in Fairfax County and Baltimore. There, they would recite their made-up stories about how they met or invent details such as which side of the bed their spouse slept on. Immigrants who marry U.S. citizens can get a visa to stay in the country immediately, instead of having to wait years, and can speed their citizenship by several years.

Ghanaians drawn to this prospect flocked to Arlington from as far as New York and South Carolina. "People would come here for two days to get married and then go back," said Robin Crumblin, one of Amoah's key lieutenants.

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