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Getting hitched for benefits, not love

Mar. 4, 2013 - 07:41AM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 4, 2013 - 07:41AM  |  
(Staff)
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MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. — Lance Cpl. Donald A. Mitchem III met Stella Agyaakoa Ampofo for the first time on the afternoon of March 27 in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart a few miles outside the gate of Cherry Point Air Station, where Mitchem serves in Marine Wing Support Squadron 274. In the presence of Ampofo's brother David and a member of Mitchem's squadron, Cpl. Micheal Tuafo, the new acquaintances chatted for a few minutes. Then Tuafo turned to Mitchem.

"Are you ready to get married?" he said.

"You only live once," Mitchem replied.

Within the hour, Mitchem and Ampofo were saying vows at a courthouse in nearby New Bern, N.C. After the wedding, the newlyweds signed paperwork, posed for a few photos, then retreated to their respective vehicles. Ampofo produced an envelope fat with cash, which she handed to Tuafo. Tuafo, who would confirm this account in sworn testimony, extracted a few $100 bills for himself and turned over the remainder — some $2,500 — to Mitchem. The couple said their goodbyes and eventually drove off in separate directions.

Contract marriages like that of Mitchem and Ampofo are an open secret in the Marine Corps. Junior Marines know they can collect a hefty package of benefits and extra pay as soon as they say "I do," and have no problem marrying a stranger to do just that. East Coast Marines are even turning to a popular online classified site to hunt for a contract bride, right under the nose of authorities.

As it turns out, this particular marriage is part of a larger scheme that involved more than a half-dozen Marines, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and a long-running green card scam.

But while the details of Mitchem's contract arrangement were later made public in a Cherry Point courtroom, many Marines game the system and never get caught.

The personal relationship of Mitchem and Ampofo began on their wedding day, but the scheme had started some time earlier.

Tuafo, a native of Ghana who had emigrated to the U.S. in 2008 on a diversity visa and joined the Marine Corps three months later, was known in certain circles within 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing as a fixer with an unusual niche. He had connections to a number of Ghanaian foreign nationals who would pay cash to marry Marines in exchange for the green card that marriage to an American promised. Tuafo, by his own admission, had arranged marriages like Mitchem's for at least seven other Marines. His own wife was a Ghanaian who had received a green card through marriage, and Tuafo would eventually admit to investigators that they hadn't married for love.

Mitchem was promised $4,000 to marry Ampofo: $2,500 upfront and $1,500 when she got her green card. But for Mitchem and other Marines, it wasn't just the cash that made the offer of marriage to a complete stranger appealing.

Cash and freedom

The Marine Corps rewards marriage with a set of seductive entitlements that are intended to do right by hardworking troops with families to support. As soon as a Marine presents a valid marriage certificate to the local Installation Personnel Administration Center, he or she can begin to receive the Basic Allowance for Housing, a monthly sum added to the Marine's paycheck and designed to offset the cost of off-base housing and utilities. In 2012 in Havelock, N.C., BAH rates for a lance corporal were just shy of $1,100, according to posted schedules. At other duty stations with a higher average cost of living, junior enlisted Marines collect $2,000 a month or more.

Mitchem was also issued Basic Allowance for Subsistence, a payment of nearly $350 a month earmarked for food, since a married Marine is not expected to take his meals in the mess hall. Finally, because Ampofo lived almost 350 miles away in Fairfax, Va., and the Marine Corps didn't authorize Mitchem to relocate her on the government's dime, Mitchem rated separation pay, another $250 a month just to make up for the hardship of being apart. Though the Corps never intended this, it had essentially agreed to pay Mitchem not to live with the stranger who was now his bride.

For the junior Marine, this marriage arrangement was pure payday.

There are other, less tangible benefits to marriage, as well.

The privileges of living off base and the freedom of not having to take chow in the mess hall are incentives all by themselves to some Marines. Married Marines don't have to work late Thursday nights cleaning their austere barracks for weekly field days, or navigate personal conflicts with their assigned barracks mates. They are sometimes invited by unit commanders to take off early on Valentine's Day or before long weekends so they can spend time with their families. They have independence and prerogatives that many single Marines — especially the junior ones with few privileges from rank and seniority — crave.

Unfortunately for Mitchem, the benefits of his contract marriage came to an end just a few months after they began.

Marriage ring exposed

The Criminal Investigation Division aboard Cherry Point had been investigating a suspected immigration fraud scheme since October 2011. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials noticed air station addresses repeatedly connected to key immigration documents, such as the I-864 and I-130, two forms that each of the Marines would sign to affirm the women from Ghana were their spouses and entitled to green cards. Tuafo was one of the two witnesses listed on Mitchem's marriage contract, and likely had signed his name to others as well, according to court testimony.

When agents approached Tuafo in July 2012 about running a ring of fraudulent marriages, he broke down and confessed everything, including the names of all of the Marines he had recruited to break immigration law. In exchange for testimonial immunity and a delay of his own trial until all of the other cases in the ring had been decided, Tuafo became the star witness for the prosecution.

Mitchem got his day in military court Feb. 19, charged with larceny and marriage fraud, a violation of U.S. immigration law. He was the first of the Marines charged in the marriage ring to plead not guilty. A diminutive and quiet 23-year-old who was described by Marine colleagues as honest and hardworking, Mitchem did not look the part of a criminal conspirator out to steal from the government and provide a cover for illegal immigrants. It wasn't clear he even knew the significance of the immigration papers that Tuafo and a Marine associate from Camp Lejeune brought to him, already filled out except for his signature.

Like many Marines before him, Mitchem just saw a good deal and wanted in.

Tuafo acknowledged as much when he was brought to the stand to testify in the Mitchem trial.

"Everyone in their head knows that if you get married, you can get BAH and everything," he said. "So a lot of these young Marines are looking around for someone to marry."

Cruising Craigslist

In nearby Jacksonville and Camp Lejeune, one of the few military metro areas large enough to have its own regional hub of the Craigslist online classified site, contract marriage offers hide in plain sight in the personals section.

"What's up, I'm a good-looking guy who wants to live the family life," read one January post, written by a man who identified himself on the site as a 26-year-old Marine from Havelock.

"I don't personally know anyone to marry so I thought I'd look on here. I already have the ring and would like to make this happen quickly."

Another poster, from Jacksonville, made no bones about putting the cart before the horse.

"Looking for a contract marriage with a possible long term relationship if it clicks," he announced in January.

Women also advertise in the online classifieds for Marines to marry, happy to split the benefits or hopeful of beginning something deeper.

"I am really looking for a contract marriage … must have a job and great credit score 680 and above," a Jacksonville woman wrote in February.

Officials with the Camp Lejeune Criminal Investigation Division were not immediately available to discuss whether they were aware of the Marines making marriage propositions on Craigslist. But there's little indication that officials would have the wherewithal to shut them down if they were.

Brought to testify for the prosecution in the Mitchem case, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Billy Singfield, director of the Cherry Point IPAC, said he had witnessed a number of transparent BAH scams on the job.

"There have been several cases where we've had Marines take someone else's marriage license and white the name out," he said.

He also audits the system, he said, for Marines tampering with their BAH codes: troops coded as living in San Diego or Hawaii stand to receive a much higher allowance each month than those in the Havelock regional code.

Sometimes, he said, troops do themselves in when they fall in love with other people while their contract marriage is still on the books.

"Pfc. Bag of Donuts and Lance Cpl. Belt Buckle get married to move out of the barracks," Singfield said. "Normally that comes to light when one of the participants want[s] to move on. The charges of adultery would bring it to light."

But the system isn't designed, he said, to audit troops' devotion to their spouse or their intention to stay together.

"We're looking at one document, and that's the legal, lawful, binding marriage certificate issued by that state," Singfield said.

In Mitchem's case, he said, the documents were in order.

"Looking at the regulations, he rates the money," Singfield said.

Why the Corps can't stop it

Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon, told Marine Corps Times via email that cases of marriage fraud typically come to the attention of authorities when the Marine in question is being investigated for other, unrelated offenses, though witnesses to the scam will sometimes come forward to turn in perpetrators.

"I am not aware of any system in place to audit for a fraudulent marriage," Flanagan wrote. "… Additionally, I cannot think of any way to conduct such an ‘audit' since, in these cases, the marriage is generally legitimate, and the [guilt of the accused] depends on whether the marriage was solely for the purpose of obtaining government benefits, or whether the accused intended to ‘establish a life together and assume certain duties and obligations.'"

It's also difficult to track or quantify what sham marriage prosecutions occur in the Marine Corps, officials explained. Flanagan said the cases are typically charged under Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 121, larceny, though some are brought to court under another common charge, Article 107, false official statement. Coupled with the cases that are only tried under Article 134, adultery, the task of tabulating sham marriages becomes nearly impossible.

During the Mitchem trial, military defense counsel Capt. Zachary Spilman hammered home the Corps' predicament.

"Marines get into stupid marriages. That's reality," he said. "Is [Mitchem] guilty of being a knucklehead lance corporal? Yeah, we got that. Is he guilty of larceny? No. Let's assume the worst: He got married for the money. That is not a crime."

A Marine jury composed of a sergeant, four staff sergeants and a captain agreed with Spilman, finding Mitchem guilty of violating the U.S. immigration statute against marriage fraud for citizenship but not guilty of stealing from the government.

He was permitted to stay in the Corps but received a reduction in rank to private, forfeiture of $1,010 for three months, restriction to base for two months, a $500 fine, and hard labor without confinement for three months.

At least four other Marines tied to the marriage ring face the same charges of larceny and immigration fraud through marriage: Cpl. Matthew Aguilar and Sgt. Ticara Cook of Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron 2; Lance Cpl. Tilman Hunt of Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 14; and Cpl. Richard Jimenez of MWSS-274. Hunt has pleaded guilty and Jimenez, following Mitchem's example, has pleaded not guilty. More Marines may be charged as the investigation continues.

Alex Wilschke, civilian defense counsel for Tuafo, declined to comment for this story but said Tuafo has yet to be charged for his involvement in the ring.

Marine Corps Times was unable to locate Stella Ampofo, Mitchem's Ghanaian contract wife, and officials with USCIS said they could not comment on an active case because of privacy statutes. Mitchem's marriage benefits were cut off by his command when the criminal investigation began in July, but he is still legally married to Ampofo. In North Carolina, spouses must be separated for one year before filing for divorce.

While the Marine Corps successfully busted one multiagency ring of immigration fraud, it may have opened the door to a bigger contract marriage headache because of the precedents set in the process.

"This case highlights the danger of unintended consequences," Spilman wrote via email. "When the government pays extra money just because someone is married, it encourages people to get married. People get married for lots of reasons, and prosecutors can't say that a marriage is wrong just because they don't agree with the reasons for the marriage."

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