By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Ivan sits in the passenger seat of a dusty white SUV, fidgeting nervously. The trim Uruguayan shakes a Marlboro loose from the pack and stares out the window as if he's searching for something. He has the rough hands of a carpenter but is dressed more like a J. Crew model in a starched, black, buttoned-down shirt and jeans. His smooth, handsome face is childlike for a man of 34, but today, his brow is furrowed. It's 9:50 a.m. Almost time.
After he and a friend roll past the suburban shopping centers and faded, one-story houses of east Hialeah, they pull into a parking lot next to a towering gray courthouse on East Sixth Street. A portly, wavy-haired woman in a purple blouse is waiting. Her name is Eunice Lopez, and when Ivan spots her, he feels nauseated.
Outside the car, he twists his head around to see if anyone is watching, then walks over to her.
"Hi," he says softly, carefully. "How do you want to do this?"
"We'll do it first," she replies. "Then the money."
With businesslike efficiency, the unlikely couple marches into the courthouse. They step through a metal detector and turn down a hallway that smells like bleach. At a sign that reads "Marriage Licenses," they stop. The dull beige room is empty, aside from an older couple that waits joylessly on a wooden bench.
Soon, Ivan and Eunice are ushered into a locked room. After taking a deep breath, he holds out a clammy hand. She reaches for it, and he feels her plump fingers lock with his. "Even the moment of the wedding, I knew I was doing something bad," he would say later. "But it was like watching a movie; it didn't feel like it was happening to me."
The ceremony room is nothing special: small and white with forest-green carpeting and a cheap black podium as the centerpiece. The bride and groom stand awkwardly in front of a black-haired notary who prepares to power through the vows.
To one side are hokey pink cutouts of cupids taped to a window — leftovers from Valentine's Day. To the other: a painting of a woman in a wedding gown bent happily over a contract, signing her name. When it comes time to kiss his new wife, Ivan closes his eyes. Afterward, underneath an arch, they pose for photos. Eunice holds a bouquet of plastic baby's breath.
Ivan (not his real name) is a virgin when it comes to breaking the law. But he plays it cool once they've left the courthouse: He slips Eunice an envelope. Inside is $4,000 in crisp $100 bills.
Ivan's May 2006 marriage to Eunice Lopez was a guaranteed way to get a green card. That much he knew. But two days after the wedding, he couldn't find her anywhere. "That's when I thought, I am such an asshole," he says. "I tried her cell phone, but it was disconnected. I went to her house, but neighbors told me she had moved."
It got worse. He would later learn that she had wed at least nine other men — and possibly as many as 16. Together, Eunice Lopez, boyfriend Rodneys Gonzalez, and her Hialeah-based Cuban-American family have racked up 32 felony charges of bigamy over five years.
The sham is among the clumsiest and most lucrative marriage operations ever prosecuted in Miami-Dade County, the nation's most concentrated immigrant community. With phony weddings going for up to $15,000 a pop, the clan garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Even bigger — likely the largest sting of its kind — was "Operation Knot So Fast." Four months ago, Central Florida prosecutors indicted 83 people in one week for running and participating in Mafia-style businesses that paired Americans with foreigners seeking status. That trumped a 2006 Southern California crackdown called "Operation Newlywed Game" that indicted 44 and one in North Texas that took in 16.
With an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States — and both presidential candidates pushing for stronger border and workplace enforcement — busts will certainly rise. Even so, well-executed rings are almost unstoppable. "You have a better chance of getting hit by lightning" than being arrested for marriage fraud, says Michael Cutler, who worked as an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent and adjudicator in New York for 30 years. "[Authorities] don't have the will or the resources."
A few days before Thanksgiving 2004, James Sirls awoke hung over in a boxy white van near Orlando International Airport. He pulled a crumpled bar napkin from his pocket and scanned an address scratched in pen. Heavy-set and happy-go-lucky, the 42-year-old had a scruffy mustache-goatee combo. He stared down at the address; it defined his mission for the morning. With a turn of the ignition, he started the van and drove to an office sandwiched between a DMV branch and a Wendy's in an L-shaped complex off State Road 50 near Clermont.
Outside the offices of All Kind Services, an advertisement for passport photographs was painted on the windows. As Sirls entered, chatty Hispanic couples were leaving. Once inside, he sat down with 13 Americans around a conference table. Eventually, 14 South American immigrants were called in. Couples were then paired off by age.
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."
At a hearing June 13 in downtown Orlando, several American citizens including Raimer pleaded guilty. The Melbourne native wore her thick hair tied in a bun and held hands with her sister until she was called before a judge. Her attorney, Kyle Fletcher, then explained that the young mother had been living in a motel and was hurting for money when a man she called "Biggie" approached her in early 2005.
Although ringleaders forged Raimer's signature on some papers, Fletcher pointed out that his client could face six months in prison. "It's a shame she'll be adjudicated a felon," he says. "It's not a heinous crime."
Dozens of requests from New Times for comment from those indicted — by phone and in person — were declined. Two spoke briefly.
At an Orlando apartment complex overlooking a dirt field, Luisa (not her real name) told the story of her dramatic 7 a.m. arrest. "This country is putting fear into immigrants," she said with tired eyes. "I'll be happy to go back to Uruguay."
José Luis Class, another of the 83 arrested, stood outside his flat-top Orlando house on a rainy Friday. "Right now, I'm looking at zero to six, and I want to keep it that way," he said. "I did it as a favor to a friend, and it backfired."
Sirls entered a plea of guilty three weeks ago and, because of his clean record, is looking at probation. Others will face much more.
All but one of those arrested have been released on bond and await sentencing. To date, none has been deported, according to ICE. But those found guilty will be promptly sent back to their countries.
University of Miami immigration law professor David Abraham, who has taught and practiced for 30 years, says the situation is unheard of. "In all these years, I have never seen a case under this section of the statute," he says. "To now use criminal sanctions on the immigrant is a new frontier. It's a step up in enforcement."
The sound of a woman screaming echoes through a large, white, 1920s house in Miami's Design District. Upstairs, in a sage-green master bedroom, a couple is arguing in Spanish. Susana Baker, a pretty, tan 50-year-old, is sobbing. Her mascara is running down her cheeks all the way to her thick salmon-pink lipstick. Victor, a younger man with a round belly, a soft mocha complexion, and thinning hair, grabs her T-shirt at the chest and throws her against a wall. A loud thump sounds as she slams against it.
"No, no! Victor!" she shrieks. He grips her neck like it's a football and lifts her against the wall by the throat. Just then, her lanky 13-year-old son, Alex, enters and sees his frantic mom. He runs out and returns with a metal bat. When Victor notices the bat, he puts her down and leaves swiftly through the front door. "His eyes were bulging; he was foaming at the mouth," Susana remembers. "He wasn't the man I knew."
That fight in early April was the first time Susana, a New York City native of Puerto Rican descent, had seen her Argentine husband lash out that way. But it wouldn't be the last. A month and a half later, he'd return to seek revenge on the woman who says she was conned into marrying him. (Victor's phone has since been disconnected, and he could not be contacted for comment at an address listed in public records.)
Susana tells the tale of a jilted bride — of betrayal — and of inconsistent enforcement by ICE, the agency that polices immigration law. She provides a peek at the problems that arise from a secretive system that values numbers and headlines over people and situations. Whether completely true or not, it's the kind of case that happens every day in South Florida.
Susana, pregnant and alone, moved into her house on NE First Avenue 14 years ago. "I was totally by myself fixing it up," she says. "I came to this neighborhood when nobody would." Recently divorced, she was holding down a job in real estate and bought the place for $135,000. When she became pregnant in 2002 with her second child, this time from a man she didn't know well, she couldn't help feeling lonely. She did charity work and spent time with her cousin and Alex. But love — romantic love — was missing.
On a muggy day in June 2004, there was a knock at the door of her big, empty, white house. Victor, who worked installing windows across the street, had come over asking to rent a room. He offered $500. "I have a small child; I don't rent," she told him in Spanish.
He returned four times during the next month, hoping she would change her mind. "No" was always the answer. But then, as she reviewed a pricey electric bill, she thought, What the hell. Five hundred bucks is five hundred bucks. And she agreed to let him take the room.
Victor moved in about a week later and talked her down to $450. Around the house, he'd do carpentry jobs and play with Susana's 2-year-old daughter, Chantal. "He had that old-country charm," Susana remembers.
By July, he was living there for free, and by August, they were a couple. Eventually, he moved his clothes into her room. By the following November, he proposed to her "with a little Kmart ring." On March 31, 2006, they signed a marriage certificate. At a wedding in December, Susana's friends and family came by the dozens to Miami's Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, one of the city's most beautiful churches, just off the Venetian Causeway. But no one from Victor's side attended. I don't know much about his past, she thought. "I was so in love. Stupid me."
Adds Yvette Jimenez, Susana's cousin: "You know how movies show men sweating at weddings? It was worse than that with him. He was green."
Soon, Victor stopped doing things around the house and working. He blamed varicose veins in his legs, which he would wrap, like a mummy, with cloth. Meanwhile, Susana paid all the bills.
When Susana lost her job this past March, things changed. She pushed him hard to find work. On April 7, he brought home a paycheck for $823.48. When she asked him to help pay the bills, he told her he was sending the money to his family in Argentina. That's when the fight broke out in the bedroom.
The next week, he went missing. She called the design company he worked for and learned he had been granted permanent residency — which Susana claims he kept secret. "That's when I knew it was fraud," she says. About two weeks after he got his papers, he disappeared.
In mid-May, Victor left a message on her cell phone explaining that he'd moved to San Diego. Because he had gained status, he could remain in the United States legally even if they divorced. Susana was devastated. In early May, she took out an old silver tape recorder and dialed his phone number. The plan was to use the conversation to show ICE he planned to smuggle in his family. The following, Susana says, is an excerpt:
Susana: Victor, I took care of you for four years.
Victor: If you call me again, I will break that mouth of yours.
Susana: But Victor, I helped you out for so long... I'm asking you — as a friend — for money.
Victor: Money? I'm giving money to my son. I need $1,500 to bring my son over here.
Susana: To bring him here? Is he coming tomorrow from Mexico?
Victor: He's coming from Argentina.
The next day, she drove to the Miami ICE office in Doral and set the tape recorder down before Special Agent Robert Colon. She figured it was proof he planned to smuggle someone across the border. Colon, she explains, stated ICE isn't interested in individual cases. "I was dumbfounded," she says.
The agent said only, "We have handled cases individually."
Afterward, she took the tape to Victor's boss in northeast Miami. She was escorted out of the building, angry and distraught.
On May 22, Victor surprised her at home while she was cooking bacon. She says he crept quietly into the kitchen, grabbed her from behind, and threw her against a wall — again. "What did you do?" he yelled. "You almost got me fired!" Sizzling bacon grease splattered out of the pan and over both of them.
A week later, Judge Victoria del Pino granted Susana a restraining order and advised her to stay in a shelter.
As the sun sets on a recent Monday night, Susana grips a wine glass and a photograph of her and Victor. Raw pink burns from the bacon grease dot her arm like freckles. "I threw a whole box of these away," she says, holding up the picture. "I don't want this shit anymore."
At 3:50 a.m. on December 9, 2007, Eunice Lopez and her aunt, Loida Rodriguez, were cruising South Florida's wealthiest barrier island, Palm Beach, in a 1994 Chevy Astro van. After they passed Mar-a-Lago — the island's Taj Mahal — and headed toward the mainland, a cop pulled them over. According to the police report filed by Officer Bryan Wilkins, Loida was "consuming a 12-ounce can of Heineken."
The cop soon discovered an outstanding warrant for Eunice's arrest. The crime must have surprised him: bigamy. Nine counts of it.
Miami-Dade County Court Judge Mark King Leban set her bond at $75,000, and less than a week later, a mug shot of her plump, haggard face aired all over South Florida TV news stations. By the beginning of January, she had a court date. There, Judge Leban told Eunice: "Stay out of churches," a reference to her serial weddings.
Outside the courtroom, a pregnant Eunice dodged TV cameras and photographers and then said she hadn't married all of those men. "Maybe someone was using my identification," she explained.
The arrest of Eunice and her family would eventually make history. In the past ten years, bigamy charges, which carry a maximum five-year jail term, have been leveled 28 times in Miami-Dade. The last time was in 2004. "It's usually a guy with a couple of counts," says Brian Tannebaum, former president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.
But Eunice, three family members, and her boyfriend, Rodneys Gonzalez, were nailed on 32 bigamy counts. "I've been here 29 years, and I've never seen anything like it," says Terry Chavez, spokesperson for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.
Public records show that Eunice came to Miami from Cuba in 2002 as a 20-year-old and bounced between low-end apartments in western Hialeah and North Miami. Eventually, she met up with family: her mother, Eurice Rodriguez; aunt Loida; and uncle Jesus Ruben. They worked remedial jobs — housekeeping, factory work, building.
In June 2002, Eunice married her first — and only legal — husband, Mauricio Matos, a 27-year-old from Peru. Between 2002 and 2006, she wed ten times without divorcing, according to an arrest warrant filed this past November. But that's not all: Public records show that 17 marriages are filed under her name and birthday. (Eunice was divorced eight times before the news broke.)
Some of the weddings — to mechanics, bank tellers, construction workers — were as close as four days apart. The men ranged in age from 23 to 48 and were from seven South American countries. She typically charged $8,000 to $15,000. Afterward, in some cases, she continued to collect fees, prosecutors believe. Her attorney, Robert Lamons, did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Six friends and husbands who declined to be named described Eunice as having "a good heart," "restless, always moving," and "not smart with her money."
"She seemed like a strong person mentally," recalled Ivan, the courthouse groom. "I don't know if she was strong or dumb." Others pointed out that she had 7- and 8-year-old children and that she strove to be a good mother.
Public records tell another story. Less than a year after she arrived, in October 2002, Eunice was found guilty of petit larceny. It's unclear what she stole (files have since been destroyed), but she paid a fine. Then, in November 2004, Hialeah police officers arrived at her house on West 29th Street to find boyfriend Rodneys breaking in. According to the police report, he "pried the victim's window open" and cops found him "halfway inside the residence." He told an officer he was upset because she "was with another male." The next day, Eunice filed a domestic violence report. Details weren't available.
A couple of years later, in January 2006, she married Euclides Yepes Ceballos, a 45-year-old Colombian-born auto mechanic. He told New Times: "When I met her, she was living alone. She said, 'I can help you with papers.' I was going to give her a car that I was repairing, but we never talked about money. Never." Asked if he lived with her for love or for residency, he replied, "We lived together."
At the beginning of 2007, Eunice moved into a rundown Pepto Bismol-pink house on West 43rd Street in Hialeah. A landlord explained that she and her mother, Eurice, would disappear with food, medicine, and money to Cuba for weeks at a time. Eunice had first appeared at the door begging for a place to stay, and he rented it to her for about $300 a month.
Soon after she was picked up in Palm Beach, two husbands divorced her — joining eight others who had filed for divorce between 2005 and 2007. The files show no shared debts, property, or children to quarrel over. Most of the husbands stated they didn't know where she was.
A month after Eunice's arrest, Hialeah Police pulled over boyfriend Rodneys on SE Ninth Court for driving with a suspended license. Cops found out he had an outstanding warrant for three counts of bigamy. The 33-year-old, who has short hair and full lips, had married women from all over the map. There was a 37-year-old Italian, a 22-year-old Venezuelan, and a 40-year-old Colombian. All tied the knot between March 2005 and December 2006.
Eunice's mother, 46-year-old Eurice, was next. On June 8, ICE investigator Jorge Broche picked her up on NW 12th Avenue at 14th Street on three counts of bigamy. Her husbands were about her age and from Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, and Uruguay.
On a recent warm Wednesday at dusk, Eurice, a stocky, sweet-faced woman, stood in the back doorway of a gated tan house off Ali Baba Avenue in Opa-locka. The back door was open, exposing a bed with hot-pink sheets. She held a tiny infant and invited New Times inside. Then with a gesture, she offered a seat in a computer chair. Asked about the marriages, she refused to comment and motioned toward the door. (Eunice declined to comment by phone.)
On June 24, Eunice's uncle, Jesus Ruben Rodriguez, 38, turned himself in to ICE for having five illegal wives — all from Latin America. Eunice's aunt, 42-year-old Loida Rodriguez, still hasn't been arrested. Police released her after the Palm Beach traffic stop and later figured out she had married 13 men. Her record also shows that a 2003 theft charge for driving with stolen tags was dismissed.
Together, Eunice, Rodneys, and the Rodriguez family could serve up to 160 years in prison. So far, prosecutors haven't charged any of the spouses — a different approach than the feds took in the Orlando bust. "They're irrelevant to our case," says Ed Griffith, spokesperson for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.
ICE spokesperson Nicole Navas would say only that each case would be "handled individually and evaluated on its own merits."
Not long before he met Eunice, Ivan had a nightmare. In it, he was wandering around a hot, cramped room with white walls. A twin mattress lay on the floor. Something was familiar about the place — the smell or the feeling. And it was unsettling. In the middle of the night, he sat up in bed, sweating. "It's my old room in Uruguay," he says. "And I realize I've been deported."
Now he wonders if he should have taken the dream as a sign. Next to some volleyball courts in a park off Biscayne Boulevard, he thinks about Eunice, and his face tightens. He speaks with a slight accent and wears a Yankees baseball cap pulled down low. "When I met —" he stops himself. "I don't like to say her name. It gets me sick."
Ivan came to the United States in 2002. A bad economy hit Uruguay hard and sank his minimart business. "I looked for jobs, even cleaning bathrooms, but there was nothing," he says. So he flew to the States and got a gig at a shipping company in Aventura. Immediately, he began learning English. He secured construction jobs and then freelance graphic design work. "I was living my life like an American," he says. "Sometimes you forget you're not."
Then in late 2005, he was offered a $90,000 salary in New York at a graphic design company. He couldn't accept it because of his immigration status. That, along with not being able to visit his family (leaving the country would mean he couldn't return) made him feel like he was living in "a golden cage." So he began searching for a solution: He asked around about paying for a wife. In two months, through friends, he found Eunice. Word on the street was marriages went for about $10,000, so when she agreed to $8,000 — half beforehand and half when his papers came — he thought it was reasonable.
Four days before the wedding, he met Eunice for the first time in the Hialeah shopping center. She brought along a skinny, nondescript white guy who lingered in the background. Ivan scrunches up his face at the idea of meeting her. "I know I'm not a model or anything. But I thought, Nobody is going to believe us."
She invited him into a dark-colored sedan, where she gave him a copy of her Social Security card, and they arranged to meet and marry that week. His heart was racing.
The day of the wedding, he skipped breakfast. An old friend from work picked him up in the morning and drove him to Hialeah in his SUV for moral support.
Growing up Catholic, Ivan had a different idea for what his wedding would be like. "It was my first marriage, and it wasn't for love," he says, shaking his head. "One part is legal. The other is moral."
After the wedding, when he couldn't find her, he began digging through public records online. Sixteen other men? he thought. He felt his stomach twist.
A month of insomnia followed. "I was part of a little club," he says. "I felt my life go down the toilet." Returning home crossed his mind, but it wasn't an option. "I'd rather jump from a bridge," he says. "I think I love America more than Americans do." Then he got a lawyer.
Practically speaking, Ivan should have let that day at the courthouse go a long time ago. But lately, he's been paralyzed by panic attacks. He's afraid to drive alone at night for fear of getting pulled over. He can't set foot in an airport. And every time the phone rings or there's a knock on the door, he's sure it's the feds ready to ship him away. "You have to have eyes in the back of your head," he says, forcing a smile. "I tried to jump, and I fell."