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Green Card Scheme Using Sham Domestic Violence Claims Lands Man in Prison

U.S. Department of Justice
U.S. Department of Justice

The “mastermind” of an international marriage fraud ring that prosecutors say arranged at least 600 sham weddings has been sentenced to 22 months in federal prison, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday.

Marcialito Biol Benitez, a Philippine citizen who goes by “Mars,” ran the illicit business under the guise of a temp agency in offices near the Koreatown section of Los Angeles, according to court filings. Foreign nationals needing U.S. green cards to live and work in the country paid Benitez between $20,000 and $35,000 in cash to marry an American, which was handled by a crew of recruiters and facilitators, prosecutors say.

And if the American spouse disappeared or backed out, Benitez and the others submitted an application, complete with restraining order documentation, for a green card issued under the Violence Against Women Act, which includes a special carve-out for victims of domestic abuse that does not require the spouse’s involvement.

“Devon, find me a girl, like matches to 53 male guy,” Benitez, 50, messaged one of them in 2021, according to a detention memo filed in the case. “wanna meet at 5:30pm and marriage [will be] tomorrow morning.. Need a girl age from 3-45 if u have.”

The money was good, prosecutors say. According to the detention memo, Benitez threw himself a $100,000 birthday party that same year at the Los Angeles Hilton, paying the entire bill in cash.

After pairing an undocumented client with a citizen “spouse,” Benitez and his co-conspirators would then stage a phony wedding ceremony for the two, hiring officiants online, authorities said. Many of the newlyweds were provided with photos of themselves and their new husbands and wives in front of “prop decorations,” according to the detention memo.

Phony wedding ceremonies staged by Marcialito Biol Benitez.

Phony wedding ceremonies staged by Marcialito Biol Benitez.

U.S. Department of Justice

Following the ceremony, Benitez’s agency submitted bogus spousal immigration petitions to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and coached the fake couples on passing themselves off during green card interviews as legit. They prepared fraudulent documentation as “evidence” of the marriages’ authenticity, renting out local addresses to clients to make it appear the couples were in fact living together.

Benitez operated the scam from October 2016 through March 2022, according to prosecutors. Shortly before the feds arrested Benitez in April 2022, an undercover FBI agent was able to get inside his offices by posing as a food delivery person, the detention memo states. The agent was able to surreptitiously snap a photo of Benitez meeting with a client and their prospective spouse, it says.

A meeting between two alleged clients and Marcialito Biol Benitez, as captured by an undercover FBI agent.

A meeting between two alleged clients and Marcialito Biol Benitez, as captured by an undercover FBI agent.

U.S. Department of Justice

Investigators searched Benitez’s iCloud account and discovered “hundreds of chat messages” about arranging sham marriages and “hundreds of photographs depicting sham weddings arranged by the defendant and his co-defendants, as well as images reflecting the defendant’s submission of falsified documents on behalf of clients.”

The DOJ on Tuesday also announced sentences for three other members of the ring: Engilbert Ulan, 43, received 14 months in prison; Juanita Pacson, 48, received two years of supervised release, with the first four months on home detention; and Nino Valmeo, 47, received three years of supervised release, with the first six months on home confinement.

When reached by The Daily Beast, Benitez’ attorney, Ian Michael Wallach, said: “Thank you for reaching out. I generally do not comment on criminal matters that my office is handling.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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