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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)

Northern Virginia was the obvious choice to center the scheme. Couples can get a license within minutes -- there are waiting periods in the District and Maryland -- and get married the same day.

Occasionally, the phony couples would go to courthouses in Alexandria, Fairfax County, Manassas, the District or Maryland. But the vast majority went to Arlington. The courthouse is on a Metro line, and plenty of civil magistrates nearby can perform a quick ceremony. "Everything was right there in the same spot," Crumblin said in an interview before pleading guilty last month to conspiracy to commit immigration fraud.

Crumblin, 44, can't read or write. She has eight children and lives in a public housing apartment in the District. But she achieved a position of prominence in Amoah's organization.

She met him through a friend, the first time in the parking lot of the Arlington courthouse. Her husband had been injured. She needed the work.

Crumblin's main job was to track down the U.S. citizens, up to a year after the actual marriage, so they could go with their Ghanaian spouse to the immigration office. Often, the search led her to a homeless shelter in the District or to a mother on welfare.

They often were not happy to see her. The U.S. citizens had been told that all they had to do for their $300 or so was get married. Now, they were demanding more money.

The Ghanaians, increasingly desperate, would have to pay. Crumblin felt caught in the middle. "They'd call my house at 4 a.m. and say, 'Where's my wife?' " said Crumblin, who says she regrets her role because of the example it set for her children.

Pressure was also building on Amoah, whose business had slowed in recent months. He suspected he was under scrutiny and became more secretive, working out of a Red Roof Inn in Springfield instead of his home.

Prison, Deportation Loom

In early 2003, an Arlington courthouse clerk noticed the oddly distant behavior of some marriage license applicants. She compared notes with fellow clerks, who were noticing the same thing, then relayed her suspicions to her boss, Bell, who called Arlington authorities. Soon, a federal-state task force was infiltrating the various marriage fraud organizations through cooperators and undercover agents. The Arlington courthouse was put under surveillance. It took time to build the cases.

By this fall, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Alexandria thought they had enough evidence. Most of those convicted probably will serve less than a year in prison. Acquah and Amoah, who recently pleaded guilty to conspiracies to commit immigration fraud and money laundering, are expected to spend more time there.

But the biggest price is yet to come. Virtually all of the Ghanaians and other West African immigrants convicted -- most of those charged were immigrants, although several U.S. citizens were charged as well -- will be deported. Some now face the agonizing choice of whether to leave their children born in the United States, who are U.S. citizens, or take them to Africa.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee offered a few words of comfort to Chepkwony at her recent plea hearing. But his sympathy only went so far.

"America is composed of -- is a nation of immigrants," he said. "Everyone here came from somewhere else. However . . . there are rules on how one can immigrate to live here permanently.

"You did not follow the rules."


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