Martin Robinson, Daily Mail (London), September 9, 2014
A vicar presided over a ‘conveyor belt’ of sham marriages where brides shared dresses and queued at the church door for up to nine weddings a day to spouses they had never met, a court heard today.
Reverend Nathan Ntege, 55, is said to have conducted 492 ceremonies over 15-months at St Jude’s and St Aidan’s in Thornton Heath, south London, pocketing £70,000 in the process.
Couples would wait their turn at the back of the church while brides changed into their wedding dresses in the garden, sometimes even sharing the same gown, the Inner London Crown Court was told.
The court heard that one potential bride Omotola Dongo married EU national Ibrahim Dembele on June 30, 2010 at St Jude’s church–even though she had already been listed to marry a different man.
Before the ceremony two sets of wedding applications were filled out because she had another man lined up for her husband, it is claimed.
Dongo, who has been convicted of an immigration offence in relation to the ceremony, later submitted an EEA application using a different address to the one on her marriage certificate.
Mr Lucas said: ‘Prior to the marriage two sets of Banns applications forms were filled out and it looks as though Ms Dongo had initially got somebody else lined up to marry.
‘When the plan to marry that person fell through, she ended up marrying Ibrahim Dembele.
‘The marriage itself was conducted by the Rev Ntege.’
The sham marriages could have been legally void because Ntege did not follow proper church procedure, the court heard.
Church of England representative Alexander McGregor told the court that if an upcoming wedding is not announced in the church three times before the ceremony then it is invalid.
‘If couples wilfully and knowingly marry without the Banns being published then the marriage is void,’ he added.
‘The member of the clergy is committing an offence and the validity of the marriage would be called into question.
‘They have to be read three times three Sundays before the wedding by the clergy officiating at the wedding.’
Earlier, the court heard that one woman could barely fit into her dress and the jury was shown wedding pictures of her underwear bulging out because it could not be zipped up, it is said.
Three wedding dresses and other bridal accessories were found at the vicarage where Ntege lived when it was searched by police, the court heard.
Ntege allegedly helped hundreds of illegal immigrants get into the country by marrying them to EU nationals in illegal ceremonies at the ‘no questions asked’ church.
The sham marriages were like ‘cattle markets’ with ‘bus queues’ of couples waiting for their turn, the court heard.
The conspiracy at the church also involved the corrupt verger and secretary, it is alleged.
Ntege, originally from Uganda but now living in Croydon, kept around £70,000 in wedding fees owed to the Diocese of Southwark, it is said.
Church verger Brian Miller, 81, and secretary Maudlyn Riviere, 67, are accused of taking part in the scam by organising the weddings and recording bogus details on the marriage certificates.
Galina Petkova, 51, and Georgia Forteath, 34, were both married in the ceremonies themselves, acted as ‘fixers’ and helped the illegal immigrants to lie on their application forms, it is claimed.
Innocent Odoh, 34, and Angela Pelachie, 54, also came into the country under false marriages but were arrested after immigration officers became suspicious of their circumstances, it is said.
Odoh did not know even his wife’s birthday, the names and ages of her children or where she lived, the court heard.
Prosecutor Edward Lucas said immigration officers became suspicious about the number of weddings at the church, which rocketed from six a year to six a day and with nine booked for the same date on one occasion.
He said the majority of them were between people from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and someone from inside the EEA, so they could stay in the UK.
He said: ‘Attention was drawn to this parish church due to the inordinate number of weddings taking place at the church, presided over in the most part by Rev Ntege.
Mr Lucas added: ‘The Crown asserts that many of these weddings were bogus or sham.
‘The weddings were neither conducted correctly or legally and their sole purpose was to facilitate industrial scale abuse of the system of immigration control in the UK.
‘They were mainly Bulgarian nationals sourced by the fixers. The number of marriages cannot have taken place at this single church by coincidence.
‘Persons wishing to go through with these bogus or sham marriages were introduced specifically to this church because it was a no questions asked church.
‘The Rev Ntege was integral to this process because without him there would have been no weddings at the church.
‘He was the lynchpin, a vital part of this enterprise, he conducted the marriages in full knowledge of the fact that they were bogus.
‘Sometimes it was like a bus queue or cattle market,’ Mr Lucas said.
‘Brides appeared to wear the same wedding dress.
‘One dress was too small and the back couldn’t be done up and her black bra was exposed.’
Ntege also pocketed more than £69,000 in wedding fees as most of the ceremonies were paid for in cash, it is said.
‘It’s more than just a coincidence that during the same period he transferred £55,560 to Uganda,’ Mr Lucas told the jury.
On one occasion there were nine weddings booked for one day and brides would queue out the door waiting for their turn, the court heard.
Women would change in and out of their wedding dresses in the church or garden outside and couples had never met each other before the big day, it is said.
‘The weddings themselves were somewhat farcical,’ Mr Lucas said.
‘Brides would share the same wedding dressed and queue up at the back of the church, waiting to be married.
‘One witness said that he often saw women getting changed into dresses inside the church or in the church garden.
‘False addresses were routinely recorded and weddings were conducted with few or no guests,’ Mr Lucas said.
‘They were processed by Ntege and his team like a conveyor belt.
‘It was a complete sham and they knew it.’
Miller was present at a number of the bogus weddings to ‘give them some legitimacy’ Mr Lucas told the court.
‘He knew full well that the weddings were entirely bogus,’ he added.
‘Riviere was the church secretary and had a key role in liaising with participants, collecting cash and recording entirely bogus details on the certificates. She was also present at many of the weddings.
‘She and Miller were part of a team processing and run it an inordinate number of sham marriages.’
Petkova and Forteath acted as fixers sourcing foreign nationals and lying on immigration application forms, it is claimed.
‘They helped arrange the weddings and maintain genuine marriage on the forms,’ Mr Lucas said.
‘They both appear on marriage certificates in ceremonies at St Jude’s.
He added: ‘The individuals involved were totally unknown to each other prior to the weddings.
‘This was wide-spread abuse of the system of immigration control of illegal foreign nationals in the UK.’
Ntege claimed he was conducting an ‘experiment’ at his church to try and boost congregation numbers, a court was told.
‘While it is no doubt, at first sight, laudable that Rev Ntege managed to boost attendance at that church the fact remains that the church authorities were completely unaware of the experiments of this church,’ Mr Lucas said.
‘Rev Ntege knew of course precisely what he was doing with regard to bogus marriages during the course of this so called experiment.’
Ntege denies making a financial profit from the church and claims he would not charge people for weddings if they could not afford to pay. He claims he never asked anyone to give false addresses but refused to answer any questions in his police interview, the court heard.
Petkova came to the UK from Bulgaria in 1994 as a visitor, the court was told. She made various applications to remain in the country which were eventually granted.
Despite having a long-term partner and daughter together she married Dmytro Glinskyy in December 2009.
Mr Lucas said it was ‘inconceivable’ that the marriage was genuine.
Petkova also filed ‘bogus employment records’ for many of the applicants in the scam.
Miller attended many of the weddings and ‘must have known what was going on’, Mr Lucas said.
‘The only explanation for him continuing to have a role was that he was sorry to the sham marriages.’
Ntege and his gang continued to carry out the conspiracy even after warnings from the Archdeacon of Southwark and immigration officers, the court heard.
‘They knew these were not marriages of love but of convenience and whose only purpose was for one of the participants to remain in the UK,’ Mr Lucas said.
Ntege, of Thornton Heath, Croydon, denies 14 charges of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law and one of fraud by abuse of position between 15 January 2007 and 31 May 2011.
Riviere, of Thornton Heath, Croydon, faces 15 charges of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law.
Miller, of South Croydon, denies seven charges of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law.
Petkova, of Enfield, North London, denies seven of the same charges.
Forteath, of South Norwood, faces two charges of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law.
Pelachie, of Florida Road, Croydon, denies one count of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law and another of deception in relation to UK immigration law between 20 April 2010 and 10 January 2011.
Odoh, of Lewisham, southeast London, faces a charge of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law and another of deception in relation to UK immigration law between 18 May 2011 and 29 February 2012.