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3 detainees gained path by marriage

Possible fraud investigated after all wed US women

Pir Khan, a cousin of Aftab Ali Khan, also married an American bride: Rebecca May Barry, in 2008. At a hearing Tuesday in Khan’s case, Barry shed tears and avoided reporters. Pir Khan, a cousin of Aftab Ali Khan, also married an American bride: Rebecca May Barry, in 2008. At a hearing Tuesday in Khan’s case, Barry shed tears and avoided reporters. (Myspace.Com)
By Shelley Murphy, Farah Stockman, and Travis Andersen
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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At first, the Colorado woman agreed to marry him. Then she changed her mind. So Aftab Ali Khan, her would-be husband from Pakistan, swiftly married someone else.

Today, Khan is one of three Pakistani men being held in New England jails on immigration charges as part of the investigation into the failed Times Square bombing.

In the still-unfolding investigation, much remains a mystery about the three men’s ties to the Pakistani-born suspect, Faisal Shahzad. The government has said the three men may have handled informal money transfers for the failed bomber, and that one of them had his cellphone number in his phone. But authorities have not filed criminal charges against any of the men, and have not said whether they believe the men were aware of the plot.

The three men followed different paths, yet share something striking in common: All three recently married American women, whose lives have now been turned upside down.

Their cases add an unusual twist to a familiar story of immigrants legalizing their status through marriage.

Investigators accuse Khan of offering $5,000 to the Colorado woman to go ahead with the marriage, and they say he paid a 29-year-old Cambridge woman, Lila-Charlotte Fatou Sylla, to marry him instead.

Speaking publicly for the first time, Sylla told the Globe on Friday night that a relative who has known Khan’s family for years introduced her to Khan after he was jilted in Colorado last August and moved to Watertown. Sylla, an African dance instructor, had three small children and was on her own.

“He was coming from a heartbreak,’’ Sylla said, and she began dating him. “He was appreciative of different cultures, music, and different kinds of food. I liked him. I thought he was a really nice guy with potential for things to grow from it.’’

After the marriage they drifted apart, and they never lived together, Sylla said. She said Khan gave her money for bills and other expenses, and gifts for special occasions, but nothing lavish.

“What I really want people to know is it wasn’t some stranger offering me money,’’ Sylla said.

Khan’s roommate and distant cousin, Boston taxi driver Pir Khan, was also arrested. In 2008, Pir Khan married a woman about half his age who friends say he often visited at her separate home in Maine. She too has been grilled by investigators.

The third man detained, Mohammad Shafiq Rahman, a computer programmer, married an artist 11 years his senior in March. By all accounts he is devoted to her and lives with her in an apartment in South Portland, Maine. She now fears that her family will be tainted by the case, a neighbor said.

If these women married for love, they are now facing the possibility that their husbands will be deported because of their alleged connection to the Times Square case and the resulting intense scrutiny of their circumstances, immigration law specialist say. If the wives entered into sham marriages, they risk prosecution under a federal law that makes marriage fraud a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“Immigration lawyers see this all the time — people getting accused of having a fake marriage, or people who have a fake marriage,’’ said Joshua Goldstein, a Boston immigration lawyer. “A lot of people don’t understand exactly how serious it is.’’

For years, the closest that Aftab Ali Khan came to US soil was the army base in Kuwait, where he managed the delivery of food and other supplies as a convoy commander for a Kuwaiti firm, Public Warehousing Co. He met an American soldier, Sharon Jeffcott, a motor transport operator from Colorado Springs. She left Kuwait in August 2008, agreed to marry him, and submitted the paperwork for a 90-day fiancé visa that allowed him to come to the United States.

But she later told Khan she had found someone else and no longer wanted to marry him, a federal agent testified in US Immigration Court in Boston last week.

Khan came to the United States anyway last August, and showed up on her doorstep in Colorado, Michael McGonigle, a special agent for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told an immigration judge. When she refused to go ahead with the wedding, Khan grew upset and offered her $5,000 for the marriage, the agent testified, but she still refused.

Khan’s lawyer disputes that account and says Khan quit his job and uprooted his life for Jeffcott, only to be rebuked.

Aftab Khan made his way to Watertown to stay with Pir Khan. On Nov. 17, the day his fiancé visa expired, Aftab Khan married Sylla at Cambridge City Hall. After Aftab Kahn’s arrest, McGonigle said, Sylla spoke to agents, indicating “it was a fraudulent marriage that she had entered into primarily for financial gain.’’ He said she admitted taking a series of payments from Khan totaling $1,500 to $2,000.

A government lawyer also disclosed during the hearing that Shahzad’s cellphone number was found stored in Khan’s cellphone and his name and number were written on an envelope found in Khan’s bedroom during the search of the Watertown apartment.

Sylla told the Globe that she and Khan “were introduced by family and I felt comfortable that he was a nice guy, and on the up and up, and that’s why I had any kind of dealings with him from the beginning.’’ She said Khan “was not an extreme person at all. I think he just really wanted to work and live a life . . . The people around him didn’t seem sketchy or fishy.’’ She said the tall, athletic 27-year-old young man was “very gentle.’’

Sylla said she is frightened and admits she made a bad decision. FBI agents have taken her computer and bank records.

“I think it’s just a lesson learned on my part about rushing into things and not really getting to know a person beforehand and being naive,’’ she said.

Robert Perkins, who taught immigration law at University of Illinois Law School and now maintains an informational website called The Immigration Professor, said authorities have begun to scrutinize such marriages in recent years. But marriage to an American remains the most common path to citizenship: 317,129 foreigners obtained permanent residence last year through marriage, compared with 196,405 in 2000, according to Department of Homeland Security data.

Pir Khan, a 43-year-old cousin of Aftab’s, also married an American bride: Rebecca May Barry, who was 22 when they married in December 2008.

In many ways, she seemed an unlikely match for Pir, who hails from a conservative city in northwest Pakistan.

In September 2008, three months before her wedding to Khan, Barry was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct by Auburn police for a fight with another woman on a city street, according to Auburn police logs. Last year, she had two car accidents in Maine while driving his 1990 grey Honda. Both times, she gave police Pir Khan’s Watertown address as her own.

But his friends said she spent most of her time in Maine, and saw him on the weekends.

Sher Wahab, Khan’s former business partner, said he had no idea how Khan and Barry met, but said the two had a good relationship.

Her MySpace page shows photos of the couple dressed in what appear to be wedding clothes, with the caption: “Had to make him smile cant be so serious all the time!!!!’’ In another photo, she is kissing his forehead, with the caption: “smoochin.’’

At a hearing Tuesday in Khan’s case, Barry shed tears and avoided reporters who tried to talk to her.

“She found the right man and started to build a life, and I believe they built something together,’’ said the Khans’ lawyer, Saher Macarius.

The US Government says Khan had declared on immigration documents filed in 1994 that he had been married in Pakistan and had a child. But Macarius said Khan told him he had never formally married the woman, and that she had died in 2001.

The marriage to Barry may have given Khan, who entered the country illegally in 1991 and was appealing the denial of his 1994 asylum application, a new avenue to pursue citizenship. He had worked for years at a pizza parlor, a gas station, and his own cab company.

But just as he was planning to return to Pakistan, as required to legalize his status in the United States, FBI agents raided his Watertown home.

In March, Sara Boutet, a 44-year-old artist from Saco, Maine, married Mohammad Shafiq Rahman, a 33-year-old computer programmer. Sara Rahman, who has five kids from two previous marriages, invited her parents to serve as the witnesses.

The couple moved to a second-story apartment in South Portland with their dog. Sara Rahman’s 10-year-old twin sons and an older child were often in the house, a neighbor said.

Rahman met his bride in an unusual way: Her former husband, Seth Gillis, owned a software company that hired Rahman to do contract work. Less than a year after her divorce was finalized, she married Rahman.

Reached at his home in Saco, Gillis declined to discuss their relationship, but said he did not think it was possible that Rahman was involved in the Times Square plot. Investigators have not suggested there is any connection between Rahman and the Khans in Watertown.

Rahman’s co-workers at the Portland-based Artist and Craftsman Supply company said he spent his weekends driving her children to sporting events, and that he talked about the family when he went out for drinks.

“We see their obvious affection,’’ said Larry Adlerstein, Rahman’s boss. Rahman told a co-worker he was the son of a retired Pakistani military officer. He said he initially trained for a career as a pilot, but that his ears bled at high altitudes. So he came to Connecticut on a work visa in 1999, and worked for a series of Web design and software companies, some of which he started himself, according to company records and Pakistan’s consul general in Boston.

“He is a technical genius,’’ said a former colleague from Connecticut who asked not to be identified. “He is one of the sweetest, nicest people that you can come across.’’

Sara Rahman declined to speak to a Globe reporter.

Heather Ripley, who lives on the first floor, described the couple as happy and loving.

Ripley said Sara Rahman said her husband had made donations in recent months, but may not have known exactly where the money was headed. Now Rahman’s friends and colleagues are struggling to understand what prompted his arrest. Ripley said Rahman had recently taken over the payments of a gray Toyota Camry with New York plates that he said had once belong to a friend. Ripley said Sara Rahman fears that people will view her and her family with suspicion in the aftermath of Rahman’s arrest. “She’s a little stressed out and sad,’’ Ripley said.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com.

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