Vicar jailed over sham marriages

Tom Pugh,Pa
Monday 06 September 2010 13:54 BST

A Church of England vicar was jailed for four years today for his part in Britain's biggest sham marriage fraud to help hundreds of illegal immigrants stay in Britain.

The Reverend Alex Brown, 61, abused his position to marry hundreds of desperate African men to hard-up Eastern European women at his small parish church.

Over a four-year period, the "massive and cynical scam" involved women being paid up to £3,000 to wed to help illegal immigrants gain permanent residency in Britain.

He presided over 383 marriages at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, between July 2005 and July 2009, a 30-fold rise in marriages held over the previous four years.

He was sentenced to four years in jail after being found guilty at Lewes Crown Court in July of conspiring to facilitate the commission of breaches of immigration laws, alongside solicitor Michael Adelasoye, 50, and "recruiter" Vladymyr Buchak, 33.

Judge Richard Hayward also handed Brown a five-month sentence after he pleaded guilty to solemnising a marriage according to the rites of the Church of England without banns being properly read. The two sentences will run concurrently.

Earnings for the church rocketed from £1,000 before the hundreds of marriages occurred, to around £22,000 for the first six months of 2009.

One bride told how she had to hand back her borrowed wedding dress hours after she had gone through with a ceremony, while one husband-to-be went under the name "Felix Spaceman".

Through gaining indefinite leave to stay in the UK, the Africans, mainly from Nigeria, would be able to enjoy Britain's education, healthcare and social benefits systems.

A large proportion of the Africans who went through with the sham marriages had arrived lawfully in the UK, either through the asylum process or by gaining a student visa.

Investigators said it was when they had "reached the end of the line" in their legal applications and appeals to stay in the UK permanently that they went through the sham marriage process.

Files recovered as part of the inquiry showed that, in some cases, Africans were already married and had children in their homeland.

Following a seven-week trial at Lewes Crown Court, jurors found Brown guilty of conspiring to facilitate the commission of breaches of immigration laws, along with co-defendants Adelasoye, and Buchak.

The gang were caught following an investigation by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) after caseworkers noticed a surge in immigration applications involving people who had married at the church.

Detectives said the investigation was "unprecedented", describing the three men as "happy to exploit and take advantage of other people's desperation for their own ends".

Jurors heard that "recruiter" Buchak, a Ukrainian national who had himself been living illegally in the UK since at least 2004, was responsible for "cajoling and persuading" the Eastern Europeans into the marriages of convenience.

He preyed on migrant workers who were living in the area and were desperate to earn money by offering them cash to wed the Africans.

Although Buchak was seen as the principal organiser, prosecutors said there was no doubt that Brown must have been aware the majority of the weddings he was conducting were shams.

He was arrested on June 30 last year and his vicarage home in Blomfield Road, St Leonards-on-Sea, and the church were searched.

Investigators found documents he had doctored including the church's electoral roll plus a second, altered copy, which he had filled out to hide the dramatic increase in weddings he was presiding over.

During the trial jurors were shown photocopies of the marriage register at the church which showed that 360 out of the 383 weddings during the period involved Eastern Europeans marrying Africans.

It was also apparent that, of the hundreds of people who had married, they all seemed to live in the surrounding streets of the parish, with 90 couples registered as living in one road alone and 52 in another.

In some instances there were even several brides and grooms claiming to live in the same house and most of those involved in the marriages had given false addresses.

Brown concealed the number of weddings he conducted in a number of ways.

The publication of banns involves a vicar reading out the names and addresses of the people to be married at three separate Sunday services within three months before the wedding.

As he was keen not to alert his congregation to unfamiliar-sounding names, for a large part of the period in question the banns procedure was not complied with, the trial heard.

On top of that, the sham marriages were carried out outside normal church hours, very rarely on a Saturday, and did not involve those who normally took part in genuine marriages, such as the regular organist.

A further way in which Brown failed to follow proper procedures was in his failure to make regular returns to the church authorities of so-called statistics of mission.

These contain basic statistics relating to the church, including the number of weddings being conducted, or accounting returns recording how much the incumbent had earned in fees for the church.

Such accounting sheets have on the reverse a breakdown of how the fees have been earned, including how many weddings have been conducted and the rate at which they were charged.

Instead of the detailed quarterly breakdowns, Brown only sent to Church House short typed letters enclosing a cheque, fearing that complying with this procedure would have exposed the dramatic rise in weddings being conducted at St Peter's.

Jurors were told at the start of the trial that Brown had already pleaded guilty to a charge of solemnising a marriage according to the rites of the Church of England without banns of matrimony being duly published, while Buchak had admitted using a false passport.

Senior prosecution officials were unaware of anyone else in British legal history being convicted of failing to read out the banns.

While living in the UK illegally Buchak had taken on the identity of an Estonian named Kaido Maesalu.

He was arrested on the same day as Brown and identity documents belonging to some of the Eastern Europeans involved in the sham marriages were found in his home in Anglesea Terrace, St Leonards-on-Sea, while many of their numbers were found on his mobile phone.

Assisted in the trial by an interpreter, he declined to give evidence, while Brown and solicitor Adelasoye both denied knowing the marriages were false when they each took to the witness box.

The court heard that Nigerian-born Adelasoye, who specialised in immigration law, helped the African participants by advising them with their applications for residency once they were married.

Adelasoye, of St Matthew's Drive, St Leonards-on-Sea, already knew many of them through his role as pastor of the Ark of Hope evangelical church in nearby Hastings.

During his evidence he claimed he did not notice that so many of them married Eastern Europeans, and told jurors: "I have a lot of respect of the sanctity of marriage."

Meanwhile, Brown, who is openly gay, insisted he only ever married couples he was sure were getting married for the right reasons and exceptions would only be made if the bride-to-be was imminently expected to give birth.

But he admitted he occasionally forgot to check the passports of foreign nationals wanting to get married to make sure they had indefinite leave to remain in the UK.

He said he became suspicious of one or two couples, but this was only because of vast differences in age between the bride and groom and put the vast increase in weddings down to "word of mouth".

Brown's motive for conducting the marriages remains unclear. He denied being manipulated or controlled by anybody or being in it for financial gain.

Cash found at his home was said to have been set aside for his pension. Other sums found correlated with the fees set by the church to conduct weddings.

Andy Cummins, in charge of immigration crime team investigations in the South East for the UK Border Agency, said the three men were "involved in the biggest criminal conspiracy of its type ever seen in Britain".

"These sentences show just how seriously the courts take these kinds of offences," he said.

"Reverend Brown knowingly abused the trust put in him by the Church, his congregation and his community.

"His role was crucial in this scam. His co-conspirators took advantage of and exploited the desperation of others for their own ends.

"As this case shows, illegal immigration can be big business. We are committed to tackling the criminal groups behind it, putting the ringleaders before the courts, and, ultimately, behind bars."

Immigration Minister Damian Green added that illegal immigration was "big business".

"At home and abroad, we are tackling highly organised crime groups who make their living by trying to exploit the immigration system and breach our border security," he said.

"Some of these hide people in lorries in an attempt to cross our borders illegally; some provide them with fake identity documents; others set up bogus colleges or arrange sham marriages.

"Worst of all - some force women and children to work against their will in the sex industry."

He added that the UK Border Agency was carrying out "an intense period of activity to go after these organised crime groups to put the ringleaders before the courts and shut off the supply of illegal immigrants at its source".

Buchak and Adelasoye were also sentenced to four years' imprisonment for the conspiracy charge, while Buchak received a nine month prison sentence for using a false passport, to run concurrently.

The judge told them: "None of you have pleaded guilty. You have expressed no remorse. I must confess I was hoping to hear from counsel for Adelasoye and Buchak that you were helping for altruistic reasons.

"I have heard no such mitigation."

He added that Brown's role was pivotal to the conspiracy. He told him: "Your role was vital. Without you this conspiracy would never have been able to come into effect.

"The couples involved beat a path to St Peter's because both they knew and you knew what was going on, and you were happy to play your part."

The judge said Brown persisted with presiding over sham marriages despite questions being raised by both the Archdeacon and rural dean about the high number of weddings involving foreign nationals.

"Although you were helped by two retired priests, you never asked them to officiate any of these weddings and when you were arrested they stopped," Judge Hayward said.

He went on: "The participants were perfectly willing but this conspiracy involved the exploitation of two vulnerable groups. The eastern Europeans had come to the UK for a better life but found themselves in poor accommodation and in hard and low paid jobs.

"They were vulnerable to being exploited and they agreed to marry for money, although evidence suggests none of them received the full amount promised."

He added that the Africans were desperate to stay in the UK and avoid being sent back to their respective countries to an uncertain future.

The judge said an unguarded comment by Adelasoye that the UK's immigration laws were "racist" pointed to a possible motivation for his role in the scam.

"For a solicitor, such an attitude cannot be condoned," said Judge Hayward, who described the rise in the number of weddings at the church from 2005 to 2009 as "staggering".

In mitigation, Brown's defence counsel, Richard Body, said he gained nothing personally from the scam, suggesting instead that he succumbed to his own "weakness".

Mr Body said: "He is someone who has devoted his life to helping others, both spiritually and practically. He has lived a modest and useful life in society and that justifies a shorter sentence than would otherwise be imposed.

"There is also the question of his health. In a relatively recent period of time, he suffered a series of strokes which affected his cognitive abilities and no doubt an immediate prison sentence would lead to a deterioration in his condition."

In the case of Brown and Adelasoye, Judge Hayward said it was "sad" to find two people who had contributed much to their local communities convicted of such offences.

He added that, for Brown, the aggravated factors included the "sheer scale" of the scam, the fact that it took place over a four-year period and due to none of the participants being relatives or friends.

However, the judge said he accepted that Brown had not gained financially from his actions.

Ken Goss, of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) South East Complex Casework Unit, said: "This was a carefully planned, massive immigration fraud - as far as we know, it was the largest sham marriages scam that we have prosecuted.

"The motive for the EU nationals was money and the motive for the mostly Nigerian nationals was ultimately to gain entry and residency in the UK.

"Everyone was aware of each of their roles and that what they were doing was unlawful.

"Adelasoye should have told the people he advised to contact the authorities, but he didn't.

"Instead he forwarded the details of the marriages orchestrated by Buchak to the Home Office.

"Buchak was one of the organisers and fully exploited others.

"Reverend Brown was well aware that the majority of these marriages were shams.

"Unusually, in Reverend Brown's case, we prosecuted under the Marriage Act 1949, saying that he deliberately failed to follow the correct procedures, which had the effect of concealing the true scale of what was happening from the regular congregation.

"He also failed to make periodic returns to the church authorities, which would have alerted them to dramatic increase in the number of weddings being conducted by him.

"However, he continued to assure the church authorities that all was in order and use his knowledge to flout the checks in place.

"After his arrest, the weddings between foreign nationals at St Peter's Church came to an abrupt halt.

"This painstaking investigation and successful prosecution has halted a deliberate and systematic abuse of the immigration laws of this country.

"It is an excellent example of partnership working between the UK Border Agency and the Crown Prosecution Service."

Outside court the Bishop of Lewes, Wallace Benn, said Brown showed "excessive naivety".

He said a review was being conducted into procedures within the diocese and he acknowledged that people's confidence in the Church could have been knocked by the case.

He told reporters that Brown would now be subject to disciplinary action but conceded it was "unlikely" he would ever officiate at a marriage again.

Reading a statement he said: "The sentence passed today on the Rev Alex Brown reflects the seriousness of his offences.

"So many people have been let down by Alex Brown's conduct and all those affected by the events in St Leonards are at the forefront of our sympathy and prayers.

"The Church holds marriage as a sacred institution and condemns unreservedly any activities and behaviour that undermine that sanctity.

"Clergy are expected to be faithful to their calling and dedicated in the way they offer pastoral care.

"This includes being assured of people's freedom to marry, their understanding of the obligations of marriage as an exclusive and life-long commitment and their willingness to undertake these obligations. As registrars, clergy also have to comply with all the legal requirements of the Marriage Act.

"Throughout this investigation the Diocese of Chichester has co-operated fully with the UK Border Agency.

"All clergy are subject to the Church's discipline as well as accountable to the law.

"The diocesan bishop will now be taking appropriate disciplinary action.

"We recognise that people's confidence in the Church of England to live up to its own standards has been undermined by these events.

"We are in the process of reviewing all relevant procedures to ensure that couples continue to be given the best support possible as they make the decisive choice to seek God's blessing on their marriage."

He told reporters that the diocese would be looking at what to do with the money generated by the huge numbers of weddings held at the church.

"We are looking into that at the moment and an appropriate sum is being held back until the police advise us what to do next. We will do whatever we are advised to do.

"The church isn't interested in having money it should not have."

He said the absence of any firm motive for Brown's actions proved one of the mysteries of the case.

He went on: "I think perhaps a stronger case could have been made for humanitarian concerns because Fr Brown has a long-term record of care.

"Excessive naivety was involved but that doesn't take away from the seriousness."

Asked whether there was a failure on the diocese's part, he said: "Whatever procedures were in place will be looked at very carefully and we will tighten our procedures.

"But when we became aware of the high number of marriages both the archdeacon and the rural dean raised it."

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