By Matthew A. Ward
NORFOLK, Va (Reuters) - A former Navy sailor went on trial in federal court on Wednesday accused of arranging sham marriages between immigrants and fellow sailors aboard a Virginia-ported amphibious assault ship.
Jermar Jones is accused of arranging the marriages between active duty sailors on the USS Kearsarge and foreign nationals who may have sought to win green cards from about December 2006 until immigration officials intervened in early 2008.
The marriages allowed the sailors to claim a housing allowance reserved for certain personnel including those with dependents, and the immigrants paid Jones handsomely for his services, the criminal complaint said.
Jones was charged with one count each of conspiracy, witness tampering and making false statements, and two counts of marriage fraud. He faces a maximum of 40 years in prison if convicted.
The court heard on Wednesday from a former sailor who has entered a plea deal with the government, Justin Robbins, who testified that Jones, a Grenada-born naturalized U.S. citizen, had persuaded him to recruit sailors for the scheme,
Robbins, who took part in a fraudulent marriage himself, testified that he had recruited five sailors to do the same, tripling his monthly pay and amassing about an extra $55,000.
"I bought a house, had nice things: truck, car, motorcycles," Robbins said. "He (Jones) said he had family members ... who wanted to get married."
He added that Jones had told him: "If you can find sailors to marry them ... we can work out a little business."
The indictment against Jones said that active duty sailor Darius Alexander, former active duty sailor Chitara Bowers, and illegal immigrants Nasara Smith and Otis Jones -- both Grenada nationals -- were also involved.
The indictment said that Smith told Alexander she had paid Jones $6,000 to arrange her marriage to Alexander.
It added that Otis Jones -- Jermar Jones' cousin -- had entered the U.S. illegally in 1998, and Smith had been in the country illegally since her visa expired in 2002.
Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Randy Stoker indicated that seven witnesses besides Robbins would testify, including one defendant's partner and other sailors set up with wives.
The participants "all have connections to New York", where it was claimed on immigration forms the couples were living together in holy matrimony, Stoker said.
"Another connection (is) all the fake marriages took place within a few miles of the defendants' homes, on the border of Newport News and Hampton," he said.
Jones' attorney sought to discredit Robbins' testimony in cross examination, tripping him up over exactly when his first dealings with Jones took place.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)