By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
Sirls spotted a fancy champagne bottle and several glasses on a nearby table. He downed one and then another. About the time he got a nice, warm buzz going, he and a homely, pale brunet named Laura Garcia migrated to a back room, where a cream-colored plastic wedding cake sat on a table.
On a rack hung men's suits of all sizes and styles. Nearby were women's wedding dresses. The pragmatic folks just slid them on over their own clothes.
Flipping through the suits, Sirls opted for a dark-blue jacket to fit his 5-foot-9, 255-pound frame. Then he set down his drink and smiled for the photographer, who snapped a picture of him and his bride with a disposable camera. The photo, and others like it, would later be used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as evidence, seized during a 2005 warrant search of All Kind Services. Agents would make note of the same plastic wedding cake in many other couples' photos. (Three and a half years later, this past July 8, Sirls pleaded guilty to marriage fraud. He awaits sentencing.)
The week of May 10, after a four-year investigation, agents fanned out across Central Florida from Orlando to Sarasota, Fort Myers, Cocoa Beach, Tampa, and Jacksonville. They collared 83 men and women. Half of them were immigrants, mostly from Central and South America. Nearly all were brides and grooms. News of it was blasted around the world.
At a news conference the week of the arrests, Robert O'Neill, U.S. attorney for Florida's Middle District, showed a photo of one "couple" who had wed at All Kind Services. An Argentine man named Hugo Luppu posed with a tall, thin woman named Angelia Raimer. "In these photographs, there are no pictures of people in the audience," O'Neill said. "They're having photos taken to make it look like these sham marriages are legitimate." Raimer and Luppu were two of 17 people indicted from All Kind Services, which was one of four Orlando-area businesses cited. The others were called A-3 and American Solutions. A fourth, with no name, was run by a Venezuelan businessman named Ender Rodriguez.
Defense attorneys said the rings worked like this: Owners sent out recruiters to find broke U.S. citizens and immigrants with expired status. They hung around bars and hunted down prospects through friends — and earned commissions for each person who agreed to participate. "If it were a drug case, [the recruiter] would be like the delivery boy," explains Kyle Fletcher, Raimer's lawyer. Immigrants generally paid $4,000 to $10,000 for the marriages. Of that, about $1,300 paid for application and license fees, and a fixed percentage went to leaders of the rings — usually two or three owners. The rest was left for the citizen and the recruiter to haggle over.
Sirls was typical of the Americans they nabbed. On a Sunday in November 2004, he sat slumped over a drink at Shooters sports bar in southeast Orlando. It was two-for-one Corona night, and he was swigging from a lukewarm bottle, watching sports on television. There were plenty of sorrows to drown: His wife had kicked him out and filed for divorce. His boss had laid him off. And for the past few weeks, he'd been living in a van and showering at truck stops. With a little cash left over from working construction jobs, he paid for food and took out his teenaged daughter now and then. "He's a hard-working guy with no priors," says his lawyer, R. Fletcher Peacock. "He's a pretty straight shooter."
Around 11 p.m., he gulped down the last of his beer, ordered another, and handed the bartender some cash. "I was drinking my last five dollars," he remembers. As he paid, a Hispanic man who spoke good English approached. "He saw I was depressed, and he came and sat down beside me," Sirls recalls. After some small talk, the man offered him $1,500 to sign his name on a marriage license. He would just have some photos taken and be on his way. The man scribbled the address of All Kind Services on a napkin and slid it across the bar. "Be here tomorrow morning," he said.
The $1,500 was just enough to rent a U-Haul truck and drive to Miami, where Sirls had family. "I needed to get the hell out of Orlando," he says. So he showed up the next day, and when it came time to kiss his wife — whose face he now can't recall — he gave her a quick peck for the camera. Sirls had almost forgotten about the day of champagne and tuxedos when the phone rang last spring. It was his sister in Atlanta with news that the FBI had come looking for him. He made some arrangements to take time off from a new job driving trucks and returned to Orlando to turn himself in. "I wanted to take care of it," he explains.
His indictment states he "knowingly entered into a marriage for the purpose of evading provision(s) of immigration law."
"Most of these people would never do this if they thought there was some other option," attorney Peacock says. "Obviously, they're desperate."