With its imposing red brick walls, gently sloping grounds and long wooden knave, the church of St Peter and St Paul in St Leonards-on-Sea is as pretty place as any to get hitched.
Boasting a congregation of just 12 regular churchgoers, the small parish in East Sussex would have considered itself lucky to host more than three weddings a year. Yet between July 2005 and September last year, 383 couples walked up the aisle to trade rings in a flurry of local passion that, at one point, saw the resident vicar hosting a wedding daily.
What was it about St Peter's that made it such a romantic place? Was it the picturesque setting or something in the water? Sadly it was neither. The Victorian building was the epicentre of what police have described as the largest organised marriage scam ever uncovered in Britain.
Yesterday the three men behind the meticulously organised deception, including the church's seemingly law-abiding parish priest, were facing jail after one of the largest police investigations into fraudulent marriages.
A jury at Lewes Crown Court decided that Vladymyr Buchak, a Ukrainian national, Michael Adelasoye, a Nigeria-born solicitor, and the Anglican vicar Alex Brown were all guilty of conspiring to breach Britain's immigration laws by organising hundreds of bogus weddings.
In the unremarkable church, hundreds of West Africans tied the knot with impoverished local Eastern Europeans who were paid up to £3,000 to be a bride or husband for the day. Once the marriage was over the couples would go their separate ways, only resurfacing to send in paperwork or attend interviews with immigration officials.
Under British law, spouses of European nationals with working rights in the UK are usually granted permanent residency as long as they can prove they have been together for two years after their wedding.
For the Africans, most of whom were at risk of imminent deportation, marriage was the only way they could stay in the country permanently. What they needed was around £9,000 in cash and an introduction to the unlikely multinational alliance of three men who were running the scam out of the quiet seaside town.
The go-to man for the Eastern Europeans was Buchak. The 33-year-old was thrown out of Sweden for marijuana use and had entered the UK illegally using false identity documents. In St Leonards, he said he was a Latvian by the name of Kaido Maesalu. He organised accommodation for migrant workers and drove around town in a silver BMW.
He targeted vulnerable Eastern Europeans who were struggling to make ends meet in jobs that did not pay anything like the amounts they had been promised by tempting adverts at home.
The West Africans entered the scam through Adelasoye, a 50-year-old immigration solicitor who lived locally and preached at the Ark of Hope evangelical church in Hastings.
Adelasoye had worked with West African immigrants for years and regularly met people desperate to stay in Britain. Most came from south London and had had their applications for asylum turned down or had visas that were about to expire.
But organising fake marriages on such a scale would have been impossible without a clergyman willing to turn a blind eye to the large number of couples knocking on his door. In Alex Brown, the 61-year-old ruddy-faced Anglican vicar who ran St Paul's, Buchak and Adelasoye found their perfect partner in crime.
Brown had lived in St Leonards for more than a decade and was known about town as a friendly priest who enjoyed a cider in his local pub, The Railway. He was approaching retirement, and the only evidence of any money acquired through the scam was when officers raided his home and found £5,000 in cash.
Police are perplexed by his motives. Under interrogation and in court he simply said he was doing his job. If there was a sudden increase in couples wanting to get married, he said, his job was to marry them.
The true extent of the scam was laid bare to police in July last year when they raided the church and arrested Brown following a six-month investigation which started when immigration officials noticed an unfeasibly large number of racially mixed marriages in St Leonards.
At the church, officers found registers stuffed with details of every ceremony conducted by Brown in the last nine years. Between August 2001 and July 2005, Rev Brown presided over just 13 weddings. But over the next four years the number soared to 383.
Police believe only 13 of those were genuine and immigration officials are reviewing any residency permits acquired as a result of the weddings. Some of the couples have disappeared.
In court, Brown argued he had no idea the marriages were fake. "I didn't take any notice about numbers," he said. "I was dealing with people in a certain situation." But even the most cursory glance through his own registers should have rung alarm bells. His parish, a predominantly white area to the west of Hastings, had suddenly become one of most cosmopolitan corners of the South East, with 90 mixed race couples marrying from one road alone.
As the verdicts were read out yesterday prosecutors toasted their success. "This was a carefully planned massive immigration fraud," said Ken Goss, of the Crown Prosecution Service. "As far as we know, it was the largest sham marriages scam that we have prosecuted."Reuse content