Sham Marriages: The Full Story

6 September 2010, 12:28 | Updated: 6 September 2010, 12:58

A St Leonards vicar has been jailed for 4 years for his part in Britain's biggest sham marriage ring. Here's the full story of how it happened:

A Church of England vicar was jailed for four years today for his part in Britain's biggest sham marriage fraud to help hundreds of illegal immigrants stay in Britain.

The Reverend Alex Brown, 61, abused his position to marry hundreds of desperate African men to hard-up Eastern European women at his small parish church.

Over a four-year period, the ``massive and cynical scam'' involved women being paid up to #3,000 to wed to help illegal immigrants gain permanent residency in Britain.

He presided over 383 marriages at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, between July 2005 and July 2009, a 30-fold rise in marriages held over the previous four years.

Earnings for the church rocketed from #1,000 before the hundreds of marriages occurred, to around #22,000 for the first six months of 2009.

One bride told how she had to hand back her borrowed wedding dress hours after she had gone through with a ceremony, while one husband-to-be went under the name ``Felix Spaceman''.

Through gaining indefinite leave to stay in the UK, the Africans, mainly from Nigeria, would be able to enjoy Britain's education, healthcare and social benefits systems.

A large proportion of the Africans who went through with the sham marriages had arrived lawfully in the UK, either through the asylum process or by gaining a student visa.

Investigators said it was when they had ``reached the end of the line'' in their legal applications and appeals to stay in the UK permanently that they went through the sham marriage process.

Files recovered as part of the inquiry showed that, in some cases, Africans were already married and had children in their homeland.

Following a seven-week trial at Lewes Crown Court, jurors found Brown guilty of conspiring to facilitate the commission of breaches of immigration laws, along with co-defendants Adelasoye,  and Buchak.

The gang were caught following an investigation by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) after caseworkers noticed a surge in immigration applications involving people who had married at the church.

Detectives said the investigation was ``unprecedented'', describing the three men as ``happy to exploit and take advantage of other people's desperation for their own ends''.

Jurors heard that ``recruiter'' Buchak, a Ukrainian national who had himself been living illegally in the UK since at least 2004, was responsible for ``cajoling and persuading'' the Eastern Europeans into the marriages of convenience.

He preyed on migrant workers who were living in the area and were desperate to earn money by offering them cash to wed the Africans.

Although Buchak was seen as the principal organiser, prosecutors said there was no doubt that Brown must have been aware the majority of the weddings he was conducting were shams.

He was arrested on June 30 last year and his vicarage home in Blomfield Road, St Leonards-on-Sea, and the church were searched.

Investigators found documents he had doctored including the church's electoral roll plus a second, altered copy, which he had filled out to hide the dramatic increase in weddings he was presiding over.

During the trial jurors were shown photocopies of the marriage register at the church which showed that 360 out of the 383 weddings during the period involved Eastern Europeans marrying Africans.

It was also apparent that, of the hundreds of people who had married, they all seemed to live in the surrounding streets of the parish, with 90 couples registered as living in one road alone and 52 in another.

In some instances there were even several brides and grooms claiming to live in the same house and most of those involved in the marriages had given false addresses.

Brown concealed the number of weddings he conducted in a number of ways.

The publication of banns involves a vicar reading out the names and addresses of the people to be married at three separate Sunday services within three months before the wedding.

As he was keen not to alert his congregation to unfamiliar-sounding names, for a large part of the period in question the banns procedure was not complied with, the trial heard.

On top of that, the sham marriages were carried out outside normal church hours, very rarely on a Saturday, and did not involve those who normally took part in genuine marriages, such as the regular organist.

A further way in which Brown failed to follow proper procedures was in his failure to make regular returns to the church authorities of so-called statistics of mission.

These contain basic statistics relating to the church, including the number of weddings being conducted, or accounting returns recording how much the incumbent had earned in fees for the church.

Such accounting sheets have on the reverse a breakdown of how the fees have been earned, including how many weddings have been conducted and the rate at which they were charged.

Instead of the detailed quarterly breakdowns, Brown only sent to Church House short typed letters enclosing a cheque, fearing that complying with this procedure would have exposed the dramatic rise in weddings being conducted at St Peter's.

Jurors were told at the start of the trial that Brown had already pleaded guilty to a charge of solemnising a marriage according to the rites of the Church of England without banns of matrimony being duly published, while Buchak had admitted using a false passport.

Senior prosecution officials were unaware of anyone else in British legal history being convicted of failing to read out the banns.

While living in the UK illegally Buchak had taken on the identity of an Estonian named Kaido Maesalu.

He was arrested on the same day as Brown and identity documents belonging to some of the Eastern Europeans involved in the sham marriages were found in his home in Anglesea Terrace, St Leonards-on-Sea, while many of their numbers were found on his mobile phone.

Assisted in the trial by an interpreter, he declined to give evidence, while Brown and solicitor Adelasoye both denied knowing the marriages were false when they each took to the witness box.

The court heard that Nigerian-born Adelasoye, who specialised in immigration law, helped the African participants by advising them with their applications for residency once they were married.

Adelasoye, of St Matthew's Drive, St Leonards-on-Sea, already knew many of them through his role as pastor of the Ark of Hope evangelical church in nearby Hastings.

During his evidence he claimed he did not notice that so many of them married Eastern Europeans, and told jurors: ``I have a lot of respect of the sanctity of marriage.''

Meanwhile, Brown, who is openly gay, insisted he only ever married couples he was sure were getting married for the right reasons and exceptions would only be made if the bride-to-be was imminently expected to give birth.

But he admitted he occasionally forgot to check the passports of foreign nationals wanting to get married to make sure they had indefinite leave to remain in the UK.

He said he became suspicious of one or two couples, but this was only because of vast differences in age between the bride and groom and put the vast increase in weddings down to ``word of mouth''.

Brown's motive for conducting the marriages remains unclear. He denied being manipulated or controlled by anybody or being in it for financial gain.

Cash found at his home was said to have been set aside for his pension. Other sums found correlated with the fees set by the church to conduct weddings.