On August 3, 2001, Dietrich Angerer and Viktoriya Dubovchenko stood in the Summit County Courthouse and bound their lives together. But there were no bridesmaids or groomsmen to celebrate the occasion. No father to walk his little princess down the aisle. Even Dietrich's own mother, Josefina Ygoa, was at home in Lakewood, unaware that her only child was getting married 75 miles away in Breckenridge. With a judge as their witness, the young couple promised to love, honor and cherish one another, in sickness and in health, till death do they part.
But no one, certainly not Dietrich, expected it to end quite so suddenly. Three months after the wedding, he overdosed on heroin.
Josefina Ygoa tried to do right by her son. She tried to be a loving and attentive mother, to provide all the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle. But she and her husband had a volatile marriage, and she wonders how much that affected Dietrich. From the time he was fourteen, he would disappear for a month at a time, staying with friends or roaming the streets.
"He got in trouble a lot," Josefina says. "He never did anything violent; he was just a nuisance kid. I blame myself. Maybe if I'd gotten along with my husband, he wouldn't have wanted to leave so much. Or maybe it's in my blood."
Josefina, a pretty, dark-haired woman who looks much younger than her 53 years, was born and raised in the Philippines and had a rebellious streak of her own, often taking part in political protests. Her parents shipped her off to Madrid in her early twenties, hoping that her grandmother could straighten her out. Instead, she met and married Richard Angerer, an American geologist with Chevron who was thirteen years her senior. Shortly after their wedding, Richard was transferred to Holland, where Josefina became pregnant with Dietrich. But before he was born, in 1977, Richard's job brought them to Lakewood, not far from his alma mater, the Colorado School of Mines. Even though she was a foreign bride, Josefina adapted easily to America, having grown up speaking English in a very Westernized country. But cultural and age differences posed problems for the couple, and Josefina often felt that her husband treated her as a child, especially when it came to financial decisions. Most of their arguments, however, centered on how to raise Dietrich. "He was of German descent and was very strict; I was more free," Josefina explains. "I was determined not to be as overprotective as my parents, but in the long run, Richard was right."
It finally became too much, and they divorced in 1994. A year later, Richard died of a brain aneurysm.
In his will, Richard left his son a condominium just outside of Breckenridge. The Vienna Townhomes aren't much -- a '70s-era, bargain-type property with a mix of seasonal workers, young couples and second-homers in residence -- but for an eighteen-year-old, it was great to be only a mile from the slopes and the mountain town's notorious nightlife.
"He just wanted to be in the mountains to snowboard," Josefina says. "He was very generous and good-hearted, and he had an open-door policy at his house."
That openness got Dietrich in trouble shortly after he arrived. His roommate dealt drugs out of the condo, and drifters came and went. "If you were homeless or an alcoholic, he'd feel sorry for you and you could stay with him," Josefina says. Dietrich also began amassing an extensive criminal record of his own that included production of marijuana, possession of narcotics equipment, third-degree assault, robbery, larceny, burglary, forgery, trespassing and driving under the influence.
He was eventually ordered into a drug treatment program in Buena Vista, graduating from it in May 2000; Josefina says Dietrich passed every drug test during his eighteen months of probation. She hoped that maybe, finally, he was cleaning up. But their relationship was strained, and Dietrich would reveal very little to her, becoming defensive when she questioned him about whom he was hanging out with and whether he was going to school. Dietrich had dropped out of Green Mountain High School at sixteen, but he was taking the occasional creative-writing class at Colorado Mountain College, an independent school with twelve campuses in the Rockies.
"Dietrich was very smart; he just never liked school," Josefina says. "He loved to read, and he wanted to be a writer. I encouraged him to go to a newspaper and show his writing. He loved poems."
He wrote a funny one for Josefina when she turned fifty. She can't read it or even mention it today without crying:
So now you are FIFTY
No dentures yet
But oh you're so thrifty.
Be careful, your bones might not mend
Your sight will falter
And soon you'll be wearing Depends.
It'll be naptime at noon
No more cares
All you get is prunes.
Write down all your amazing tales
Cause your memory will go
And your hearing will fail.
But no matter how senile you get
Or if you pick up the old lady smell
I'm willing to bet
I'll leave you NEVER
I'll be there when you call
And love you FOREVER!
Josefina hoped her son would find something to inspire him. However, Dietrich's legal problems had left him with a mountain of debt, and neither an education nor poetry would pay it off.
But a man named Piotr would.
In early August 2001, Dietrich's new girlfriend, Jenny Cummings, and her mother, Carol, were pulling up outside of his Swiss-chalet-inspired condo to pick him up and run errands. As Dietrich left the building, Piotr and another man approached him. Dietrich chatted with them for a few moments and then got into Carol's car.
He told Jenny and Carol that the Russian had offered him $3,000 to marry his girlfriend, Viktoriya, plus another $3,000 when she got her green card. Carol says he was considering the offer and that Jenny told him, "If you do it, I'd ask for more money." (Carol says her daughter doesn't wish to speak about Dietrich because it brings back painful memories.)
Shortly after the encounter, Jenny and Carol went on a previously planned trip to Yellowstone National Park, and when Jenny returned, Dietrich told her he'd taken her financial advice and married Viktoriya. He showed her their wedding photos and explained that Piotr had agreed to pay him $5,000 up front and $5,000 when Viktoriya received her permanent residency.
The two couples -- Dietrich and Jenny, Viktoriya and Piotr -- began spending time together, hanging out at Eric's Downstairs in Breckenridge and going to Denver occasionally, so that Dietrich and Viktoriya could get acquainted.
But only a month into their marriage, Dietrich left to help Jenny move back to North Carolina, where her mother lives. "During his stay with me, Viktoriya wired him money through Western Union. Dietrich left to go back to Colorado around October 11," Jenny wrote in a letter she later gave to Josefina explaining her knowledge of Dietrich and Viktoriya's relationship. "We kept in touch by phone a lot. On October 24, I left to go back out to Colorado on the Greyhound with a ticket that Dietrich had bought for me. We couldn't be apart."
Less than a month later, however, they were parted forever. On the night of November 10, 2001, 23-year-old Dietrich died of a heroin overdose while partying in Breckenridge with Jenny and another friend.
No bride showed up at the funeral to grieve.
No one is really sure why Piotr chose Dietrich. They didn't know each other, and they didn't seem to have any acquaintances in common. Maybe it was that the young man looked exotic, thanks to his lineage and his thick, black hair and intense stare. Or maybe it was just coincidence. "Dietrich just happened to be someone who was susceptible to that kind of thing," says Donald Moody, Josefina's common-law husband.
However it happened, it's not an unusual occurrence. A number of girls on the Auraria campus have been propositioned, and even Jenny was approached by a Russian man offering her $10,000 for a citizenship marriage. "She thought about accepting the money because it would have gotten her out of debt, but she didn't end up doing it because she didn't want to get involved in something like that," her mother says.
So many people do, though, that immigration officials can't keep up with the number of sham marriages. According to a 2002 General Accounting Office report, in January 2001 alone, Miami investigators handled 205 cases of "benefit application fraud," of which 84 were considered "facilitator" cases, or those "involving individuals or entities who prepare fraudulent benefit applications or who arrange marriages for a fee for the purpose of fraudulently enabling an alien to remain in the United States." Los Angeles gets 200 such leads a month but has the resources to investigate only a few, while "Chicago officials informed us that they had a backlog of approximately 300 marriage-fraud cases." Denver didn't even rate a mention.
Nonetheless, this city has its share. According to immigration officials here, in 2003, 185 requests for permanent residency through marriage were granted; another 55 were denied because of fraud. The United States Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado has prosecuted five such cases in the past two years, four of which involved an Armenian family in Highlands Ranch. (The fifth involved a man named Ahmed Reza-Gharai, who was sent to prison.)
Diana Vardan Manukyan offered Joshua David Kellison $250 a month for ten months to marry her. He accepted; they got busted. She was sentenced to prison, and he was given two years' probation. Diana's brother, Davit Manukyan, offered Rachel Anne Koller $200 a month for two years. She agreed; they got busted. He was sentenced to prison, and she got four years' probation.
Before Davit got caught, he brokered an elaborate deal for another Highlands Ranch Armenian couple. Ani Yengibaryan sought asylum from immigration officials, saying that her husband had been kidnapped in Armenia and that they would both be killed if she were forced to return. Davit helped her fill out the proper immigration forms and then solicited Anna Caterina Bollinger to marry Ani's husband, Varuzhan Melikyan, who had never actually left Highlands Ranch. Ani was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, false swearing in an immigration matter and presenting an immigration document containing a false statement. Varuzhan was charged with conspiracy and entering into marriage to evade immigration laws. Once immigration officials had started researching Ani's request for asylum, they began to uncover the earlier cases. Both Ani and her husband were sentenced to prison.
In the current climate, it would seem that marriage-fraud cases might take a backseat to anti-terrorism efforts. However, Betty Mills-Carilli, assistant special agent in charge of immigration and customs enforcement in Denver, says that isn't the case. "We're treating everything as a priority," says Mills-Carilli. "We're not strictly working terrorism cases."
(The Immigration and Naturalization Service recently merged with other agencies and morphed into three divisions: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. All three are under the Department of Homeland Security.)
In reality, marriage-fraud cases rank fourth on an immigration service list of five priorities, beaten out by deporting criminals, curbing the smuggling of illegal immigrants and responding to community complaints.
Sheela Murthy, a well-known immigration attorney in Baltimore, sees marriage-for-cash cases all the time. Although the majority of her practice revolves around employment issues, many newlyweds come to her for help in filing immigration papers. She turns away 25 to 50 percent, either because she suspects a green-card marriage or because they confess to her. "It's a big problem," she says, adding that the request is particularly common among Nigerians and Russians.
Marci, a Colorado resident who asked that her real name not be used, is in one of those marriages, though her husband is European. They've been married since 1999, and Greg has successfully secured his permanent residency. But when other women tell her they're tempted to marry for money, she cautions them. "I've heard about it from half a dozen college kids," says Marci, whose sister goes to school at Auraria. "One guy offered my sister's friend $10,000 to marry him. They're like, 'What should I do? It's a lot of money.' Yeah, but it's also a lot of jail time, and it's a totally different situation than mine. There's no way you can fake two years of marriage with a stranger."
Greg and Marci met while working at a downtown restaurant and became close friends. So when she discovered that his visa was set to expire in sixty days -- and that Greg feared persecution in his native country -- she said, "Well, why don't we just get married?"
Marci didn't really consider the possible penalties if they were caught, but Greg was a little more cautious. "He was reticent because we were such good friends, and he didn't want me to get in any trouble. But we got married a month and a half later and moved in together." Greg is gay, so they got a two-bedroom apartment and continued to live their lives normally -- including having other relationships. They told only their closest friends, the INS and their employers about their newly acquired marital status.
The requisite time for immigration officials to consider a residency application in a marriage is two years. After that, they conduct an interview and consider the evidence of the union in question. If they're suspicious, they can ask for affidavits from friends or conduct an investigation. If not, they may grant permanent residency right away, and the immigrant spouse can apply for citizenship the following year.
Greg and Marci stayed together for two years, doing all the things a married couple would do, including paying bills jointly, sharing rent and commingling funds. When it came time for their interview, they had no problems. They arrived at the main immigration office in east Denver and sat in a waiting room for almost an hour before being called. Cameras were aimed at the dozen or so couples nervously waiting their turn. "You could tell the people who didn't know each other," Marci says. "They didn't act comfortable around each other."
But Marci and Greg knew each other so well and were so natural together that they got a warm welcome from the agent reviewing their case -- an abrupt change from the icy reception she had given the Hispanic couple before them. "I really think there was some racial profiling going on," says Marci (both she and Greg are white). "It felt like they were just going through the motions with us."
The 45-minute interview consisted of financial questions they'd already answered in earlier paperwork, such as whether both parties were working and paying taxes. It was nothing like the 1990 film Green Card, in which Andie MacDowell and Gérard Depardieu marry for convenience: no separate interrogations, no questions about toothbrush color. Instead, "they stamped our paperwork right in front of us and said, 'Welcome to the country,'" Marci recalls.
But if they'd been caught, Greg could have been deported, and Marci could have faced up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. There are no additional sanctions under Colorado law; the state's Uniform Marriage Act lists bigamy and marriage to close relatives and underage spouses as no-nos, but not illegal immigrants. "You can marry for any reason you choose under state law," says Ken Lane of the Colorado Attorney General's Office.
In New York, policies are a bit more stringent, and immigration officials are so swamped that newcomers often wait years to gain residency through marriage. When Stacy Cowley met David, the love of her life, online, she had no idea how hard it would be for the Australian to become an American citizen. Although their marriage is legitimate, the approval process has been painstaking. They filled out the papers for his conditional green card shortly after they got married, in December 1999, and prepared to go in for a preliminary interview (something immigration officials in Colorado don't require). It took eighteen months just to schedule that meeting, though, and David's two-year conditional green card expired in June. The only contact they've had with immigration so far -- besides filing stacks of paperwork -- was a letter explaining that his temporary residency has been extended. "We carry that paper with us everywhere," says Stacy, who's not sure David can even leave the country while he awaits permanent status. "We're stuck in limbo."
Josefina knew nothing about her son's marriage when she heard the tragic news of his death, so when the coroner asked, she told him to mark "single" on the death certificate. "I didn't even get suspicious when the coroner gave me a ring of his that looked like a wedding band," she says. "He wore rings all the time, and I just thought it was another one of those."
It wasn't until her brother, Mel Ygoa, arrived from Madrid for the funeral that she discovered she had a daughter-in-law. Mel had visited his nephew earlier in the year, and Dietrich had confided in him but had sworn his uncle to secrecy. "I knew everything beforehand," Mel says. He had gone with Dietrich to pick up money from Piotr and Viktoriya at their condo, and though he remained in the car, he caught a glimpse of the striking young Russian woman as she stepped outside to greet her husband. When Dietrich got back in the car, he told Mel that he'd just received an installment payment.
The next time Mel saw the woman, he was cleaning out Dietrich's condo. "The door was open, but she knocked, calling out, 'Dietrich, Dietrich,'" Mel recalls. Piotr was with her, and she introduced him as her boyfriend. When he told her that Dietrich had died, she was surprised but not sad. "She said she had just come back from a trip and that she was waiting for her marriage certificate because she was in the process of getting residency," Mel says. "She seemed upset because of her status. I told her she'd need to get the marriage certificate from my sister."
"Two weeks later I get a call from Viktoriya," Josefina recalls. "I asked what she wanted, and she said, 'Nothing. I just want to introduce myself and show you some of our wedding pictures.'"
Josefina and Donald agreed to meet Viktoriya at the Golden Public Library. "She was nervous and shaky," recalls Josefina, who couldn't bring herself to look at the photos.
Josefina turned down her offer to help pay for funeral expenses. When Viktoriya asked where Dietrich was buried, the couple directed her to Golden Cemetery and said goodbye. The awkward meeting lasted no more than thirty minutes.
A few days later, Josefina received a call from Viktoriya's attorney. It turns out she did want something: Dietrich's $115,000 condo.
When Richard willed the condo to his son, he had put it into a trust rather than in Dietrich's name. Under the terms, if Dietrich died, the condo would go to his estate, of which spouses are entitled to the first $200,000 in Colorado. Under immigration law, every marriage between an American citizen and an immigrant is presumed to be fraudulent, and the burden of proof rests with the couple. However, "under civil law, every marriage is presumed to be legal," attorney Murthy explains.
Unsure as to which legal interpretation would prevail, Josefina hired a lawyer and contacted immigration officials. After all, she didn't want Dietrich's wife of three months to become the owner of the condo -- a condo she'd paid off and for which she had been paying the taxes, insurance and homeowner fees. When she reached an immigration investigator, she was told that these kinds of marriages happen all the time and that there are bigger concerns. Josefina continued calling the investigator for several months but hasn't heard back, despite having letters from Jenny and Dietrich's other friends explaining that the marriage was a fraud. (Special Agent Mills-Carilli says that immigration officials are investigating the case.)
Josefina had better luck with her attorney, who convinced a Summit County judge to put the condo in her name. After that, Viktoriya and her attorney, Dan Mahoney, tried to settle with her: "They said she'd get 75 percent and I'd get 25 percent," Josefina says. "I said no."
The condo is currently empty, but Viktoriya believes it should be hers because, she insists, her marriage to Dietrich was legitimate. "We were dating for five or six months, and then we just fell in love and decided to marry," says the 26-year-old. She says she'd been living in Colorado for two years when she met Dietrich in a Frisco bar in January 2001; however, she also claims to have moved to Colorado in July 2000 after completing a work-study program in Vermont.
The couple never lived together, but Viktoriya says she "tried to clean it up. His friends were really bad people." Instead, she rented a separate condo.
But Dietrich's best friend, Courtney Bennett, doesn't think it was his friends who were so very bad. "If he had just gotten married for love, he probably would have been on a honeymoon with his new bride afterwards, not in North Carolina with Jenny."
Viktoriya insists it was a case of love, even if it was a rocky one. "He was cheating on me. He told me she was an old friend. I didn't like her."
And Viktoriya claims that Josefina didn't like her, which is why she believes her mother-in-law is saying the marriage was a fraud. "When we got married, she didn't want to meet me; Dietrich said his mother doesn't like international people."
"No one was invited to that wedding," Donald counters. "Josefina was all Dietrich had. Certainly if it was legitimate, he would have had his mother there."
But Viktoriya is sticking to her story. "I am a very pretty woman, and he didn't have any money. If I wanted to marry someone for the papers, I'd go find someone else," she says, adding that she has a visa and is awaiting an interview with immigration officials. In the meantime, she's living in Denver and running her own housecleaning business, VOP Care, which is registered with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, an agency that doesn't inquire about a business owner's immigration status.
Even Viktoriya's own attorney claims not to know her immigration status. "That information hasn't been shared with me," Mahoney says. "But like a lot of immigrants, I think she's afraid to use the judicial system out of fear. The cards are stacked against her."
Still, she is prepared to fight for the condo. "I have a right to it," she says.
"If she's interested in his possessions," Carol Cummings quips, "we have two of his dogs."
Josefina isn't going to give up; she's even hired a private investigator to discredit Viktoriya's claims. The next step in the effort to resolve the condo dispute is for both parties to give depositions -- something that could happen in October or November. After that, the case will go before a judge.
Viktoriya "may have a legal right to it," Donald says, "but morally, she has no right to anything."