Larysa Maslenko was depressed when her first marriage failed after just six months, but instead of posting a profile on Match.com, the Ukrainian woman signed up for a free service that promised introductions to marriage-minded American men. "I didn't know what to do. All the time I was crying," says Maslenko, who was born in east Ukraine but living in Kiev.
Just one day after she enrolled, the fair-skinned, blue-eyed 23-year-old got a call to meet 41-year-old Dennis McGookey of Thornton, who was visiting the country. The two connected at a cafe after Maslenko got off work, and though she didn't speak English, they were able to communicate through an interpreter provided by the matchmaking service. "He was very nice," Maslenko says shyly, adding that she could tell that McGookey was working hard to keep her attention and engage her in conversation.
Despite the age difference, Maslenko says she felt comfortable with McGookey and agreed to meet him the next day for a trip to a museum. They spent time together each of the following eight days he was in Ukraine, walking the streets, visiting the zoo, checking out the circus. Three days before he left, the two kissed, and from there the relationship grew more intimate. "It was really nice and it was really fun, and we enjoyed the time we spent together," Maslenko recalls. "We had jokes."
McGookey flew back to Colorado but returned to Kiev three months later, in May 2001. This time, Maslenko took him to meet her parents. The pair continued a phone relationship after McGookey again returned to Colorado, and he paid for Maslenko to take English lessons. Five months later, McGookey went back to Kiev to get Maslenko and bring her home with him. She received her visa on October 12, 2001, and moved to the United States four days later.
McGookey's mother, Jennifer McGookey, and his youngest son met them at the airport. Waiting at home for the couple were his oldest son and the boys' mother, who still lived with McGookey and would continue to do so until McGookey and Maslenko wed, on January 4, 2002.
The next month, Maslenko applied for her green card, began taking English classes at Emily Griffith Opportunity School and started looking for work. She talked with a career counselor at EGOS, who referred her to a friend. That introduction led to a meeting between Maslenko and a friend of the friend, Irene Ludwig.
Ludwig is from a family of Hungarian refugees, and she and Maslenko quickly connected. Maslenko mentioned a dish she bakes that reminded Ludwig of something her grandmother used to make, and she agreed to prepare the dish for Ludwig. That generated a friendship that grew even stronger as Maslenko prepared for the birth of her first child.
"We got to get to know her, and as I got to know her, I said, 'You're an American now, and [we'll] have to throw a baby shower," Ludwig says.
Any such plans for celebration were cut short, however: On June 22, 2002, McGookey died at home in the middle of the night. A hardened man who ran his own hauling company, McGookey had no health insurance and hadn't been to see a doctor for any of his medical problems, which arose from a life of hard labor and a bad car accident.
A month after her husband died, Maslenko gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She named him Dennis, after her late husband. Jennifer McGookey came to the hospital to visit her new grandson, but that was the last time she ever saw him, she says. She and Maslenko had begun battling over her late son's estate, which had been left to Maslenko.
Maslenko struggled financially for the next few months. In January 2003, broke and unable to work, she was forced to sell the Thornton home she had shared with her husband. McGookey's two teenage sons initially refused to leave; Maslenko says she had to evict them.
"This was a very nasty, nasty situation for Dennis's boys and myself," Jennifer McGookey says of the struggle over the estate.
When Maslenko showed up for her immigration hearing in February 2003, she explained to officials that she was widowed but still seeking U.S. citizenship. They decided to continue the process and informed her that someone from McGookey's family would have to agree to pay back any welfare she might receive from the government if she were to stay in the country and fall on hard times. They gave her two months in which to get a family member to agree to such an arrangement.
McGookey's mother, herself an immigrant from England, was the most likely candidate to provide the backing, but bad blood over the estate still lingered. "It was the way she treated me, her and her friends; they absolutely took everything from my son's estate," McGookey says. "I was looking out for the boys, and these people were so very, very greedy. Very greedy. I've never met greedy people like that, ever in my life. She promised me a few things that she never came through with."
The two women went back and forth, but no progress had been made as Maslenko's April deadline approached. Without her mother-in-law's signature, Maslenko would have to return to Ukraine. Ludwig enlisted a mediator, pastor John Backe from Our Savior's Lutheran Church, to help bridge the gap.
"I was sort of overwhelmed contemplating that situation, being that far from home, having a baby, your husband dying," Backe said. "It's almost too improbable to be a script for a movie, with all the things that were going on."
At the first meeting, Backe explained to McGookey that if she didn't help Maslenko, the younger woman would be deported and McGookey would never see her grandson again. When they sat down a second time, McGookey provided a long list of what she wanted from her son's estate. Backe says he warned her that the government might see that as a deal in exchange for her signature and decline to award Maslenko a visa. Still McGookey refused.
On the last possible day Maslenko could have someone sign to keep her in the country legally, she took an attorney's suggestion that she have a friend legally adopt her. Ludwig agreed to be her de facto mother, and they submitted the necessary paperwork. A month later, immigration officials denied Maslenko's petition to stay in the United States; however, they did not issue a deportation order.
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Maslenko decided to stay in Colorado and go to school, taking the $45,000 she had made from the sale of the house and enrolling at the Colorado School of Mines in August 2003. She had attended a mining school in Ukraine, so this was an opportunity to get her master's degree in mining and earth-systems engineering. She graduated on December 17, 2004.
After that, Maslenko was offered a job with a construction company that promised to hire a lawyer to work out her immigration status. Unfortunately, the issues couldn't be resolved. She then met with an international chemical company based in Texas that made the same promise. Maslenko thought things might get sorted out this time, because the firm had its own immigration lawyer. But that also fell though.
Finally, an Australian company offered her a position, and on March 18, Maslenko left the United States. She says she loves this country and would have preferred to stay, but without her mother-in-law's signature, she had no choice but to leave, taking her U.S.-born son with her.
"I think from the start, it was an improbable and sad situation," Backe says. "But within that, there were a number of people who came forward to help her through to a better place, and in the big picture, it's a heartwarming story for all the people who pitched in to help to get her to stay and then to get her to Australia."