Fri | Sep 24, 2021

How US authorities busted Jamaicans behind marriage fraud scheme

Published:Sunday | September 12, 2021 | 12:10 AMLivern Barrett - Senior Staff Reporter
The convictions could land all three in the cross hairs of Jamaica’s Financial Investigations Division (FID), the state agency charged with using the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) to go after assets derived from criminal activities.
The convictions could land all three in the cross hairs of Jamaica’s Financial Investigations Division (FID), the state agency charged with using the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) to go after assets derived from criminal activities.

Shanon Stephenson, a Jamaican living in the United States (US) illegally, and Audrey Johnson, an American citizen, got ‘married’ in a seemingly normal ceremony held in the state of New York on March 1, 2012.

Days later, Stephenson applied to the US Citizen and Immigration Service for permanent residence or a green card, while his ‘wife’ submitted the required sponsorship application form.

Both applications, which were signed under the penalty of perjury, listed the ‘couple’ as living together on Hendrix Street in Brooklyn. Stephenson received a temporary two-year green card later in 2012.

But when Stephenson and his ‘bride’ submitted application forms in September 2014 to have his temporary green card converted to permanent resident status, something caught the attention of US immigration authorities.

“Although the forms and the return address on the mailing envelope listed them as living together at 630 Hendrix Street, in Brooklyn, the envelope’s postmark identified the actual point of mailing as Bridgeport, Connecticut,” a plea deal signed by Stephenson in New Haven Federal Court last month revealed.

The Jamaican received his green card on November 19, 2015, but US authorities would soon gather a trove of evidence showing that the marriage was a fraud and part of an elaborate scheme that raked in over US$400,000, or approximately J$60 million, by arranging over two dozen such ‘weddings’ across several states.

The most critical piece of evidence was that Stephenson had been married to another Jamaican, Jodian Stephenson, also known as ‘Jodian Gordon’, since August 22, 2010 and that they lived together in Connecticut, court documents obtained by The Gleaner revealed.

“Three years later, on December 29, 2013, they again participated in a marriage ceremony, this time in Jamaica,” the document noted, referring to the union between Shanon and Jodian Stephenson.

Investigators also found three joint bank accounts in their names, one of which displayed “extensive activity” between 2012 and 2016 and a joint car insurance policy maintained and renewed annually between 2012 and 2020.

Shanon Stephenson pleaded guilty on August 27 to conspiracy to commit immigration and marriage fraud for his 2012 ‘wedding’ with Johnson. He is scheduled to be sentenced later this year.

US authorities discovered, too, that Jodian Stephenson was the masterminded behind the marriage fraud scheme.

According to a plea deal she struck with prosecutors, Jodian admitted that through her Bridgeport-based company, Stephenson Immigration and Legal Services, she conspired with others, including her brother-in-law Sheldon Stephenson, to arrange 27 other sham marriages between 2011 and 2017 to help non-US citizens get green cards.

The 37-year-old Jamaican also got her green card through one of the sham marriages.

She typically charged her clients between US$17,000 and US$20,000 to complete the process of acquiring a green card. American citizens who participated in the scheme were paid between US$2,000 and US$4,000.

Jodian pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit immigration and marriage fraud in August 2019 and was sentenced last month to six months in prison. She has until October 25 to begin serving the sentence.

Sheldon Stephenson also pleaded guilty to the same offence and is awaiting sentence.

He admitted, in a plea agreement signed on December 4 last year, that he collected US$6,958 or a little over J$1 million as payment for helping to arrange four marriages between November 2014 and October 2015.

“Sheldon Stephenson helped to introduce the couples, helped them obtain marriage licences, prepared their immigration paperwork, and coached them for their immigration service interviews,” his plea agreement revealed.

FID COULD TARGET ASSETS

The convictions could land all three in the cross hairs of Jamaica’s Financial Investigations Division (FID), the state agency charged with using the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) to go after assets derived from criminal activities.

“Any person with a conviction record overseas who has assets in Jamaica that is not commensurate with their known legal income, the FID can utilise the civil recovery powers under POCA to determine whether those properties are recoverable assets and seek to have them restrained and forfeited,” Keith Darien, principal director of the FID, explained.

US authorities say Jodian Stephenson not only arranged weddings for her clients, but also coached them on how to make their marriages appear legitimate.

She suggested that they create an “authentic-sounding” story about how they met; go on dates together and take pictures portraying a “happy couple”. They were also advised to store clothes at the non-citizen’s home and open joint utility and bank accounts.

“In some cases, [Jodian] Stephenson or her assistants also would prepare other false documents for the couples, such as a false lease [agreement] portraying the couple as living together,” she admitted in her plea deal.

livern.barrett@gleanerjm.com