Courts & Crime

Naturalized citizen accused in Sacramento of masterminding alleged immigration fraud

They posed for pictures and joined their names on apartment leases, but those and other routines common for newlyweds were all part of elaborate ruses to make sham marriages look real to immigration officers, say federal authorities.

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner on Tuesday unveiled what he called a large-scale immigration fraud – the first of its kind to be charged in Sacramento – involving dozens of marriages arranged to illegally get foreign nationals permanent status in the United States.

Sergey Potepalov, a 55-year-old Citrus Heights resident, was described by Wagner as the ringleader. He, along with his chief lieutenant, Keith O'Neil, 44, and 12 others were charged two weeks ago in a sealed grand jury indictment with arranging or participating in marriages between recruited U.S. citizens and noncitizens from Eastern Europe and Russia, who paid up to five-figure fees. According to Wagner, nine of the 14 defendants are from the Sacramento area.

Calling the crime "pernicious" and "difficult to prove," the top prosecutor said it "takes advantage of compassionate and humanitarian provisions of the U.S. immigration laws intended to promote family unity, and twists them into a path to residency and citizenship based on fraud and deceit."

Potepalov and his accomplices "are alleged to have earned substantial profits over a multiyear period," Wagner said. "Some U.S. citizen defendants were involved in multiple marriages."

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