Courts & Crime

Calif. man is alleged 'mastermind' in sham marriage ring

On the surface, Sergey Potepalov appears to be an incurable romantic.

He married Marina Arzumanova in 1999, and divorced her on Oct. 19 of that same year, according to court records. He married a woman named Olga 11 days later, reportedly before his divorce from Marina was even final.

Three months later, making certain the niceties of American marriage law were observed, the 55-year-old naturalized American citizen divorced Olga, but remarried her at the Heart of Reno Wedding Chapel the same day.

That marriage lasted just over two years, and by November 2005 Sergey had again married Marina in a ceremony at Reno's Antique Angel Wedding Chapel.

When not getting married or divorced, the seemingly compatible couple have stayed busy filing petitions with immigration officials – Marina seeking to have two different men admitted to the United States so she could marry them, and Sergey petitioning to marry four different women during the same period, court documents state.

Last week, federal officials arrested Sergey Potepalov on immigration fraud charges, saying his enthusiasm for matrimony was driven by that old standby: greed.

Prosecutors say Potepalov collected tens of thousands of dollars from Russian and eastern European nationals in return for arranging marriages to American citizens and making them candidates for permanent residency in the United States.

He has been the "mastermind" of 39 bogus unions, commonly called "marriages of convenience," since 1999, according to Dan Lane, the Sacramento region's top investigator for the Department of Homeland Security.

Potepalov declined to be interviewed last week at the Sacramento County jail, where he and a number of his co-defendants are being held. His attorney, Michael Hansen, declined to comment, saying he has not yet seen the evidence or had an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion with his client.

Federal authorities say Sergey and Marina Potepalov, who has not been charged, are now divorced. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel McConkie said during a bail hearing Wednesday that if Potepalov is released, he plans to live with Marina, an American citizen, and their son.

The prosecution of Potepalov and 13 others, announced a week ago, is the first of its kind in eastern California, "and one of our agency's major cases," Lane said. The 5-year-old investigation is ongoing, he added.

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