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FBI arrests brother of San Bernardino terrorist and 2 others on marriage fraud charges

FBI arrests brother of San Bernardino terrorist and 2 others on marriage fraud charges
Syed Raheel Farook, left, is released on bail at the Riverside Federal Courthouse in April 2016. He and wife, Tatiana Farook, have pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud related to a sham marriage. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

On the surface, it seemed like a happy marriage.

There were smiling photographs of the blissful couple. They appeared to be sharing a home in Corona. The bride had even picked out her groom's wedding ring.

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But federal authorities say the union was sham.

The wedding ring was a $50 bargain-bin item, purchased more than a year after the purported marriage ceremony, prosecutors allege. The photographs were staged, and the husband was growing more anxious by the day. Privately, he told friends he was worried the couple weren't clicking. On social media, he published a desperate post admitting he was involved in terrorist plots and might go to prison for fraud, court records show.

Thursday, FBI agents arrested the wife, Mariya Chernykh, her sister, Tatiana Farook, and her brother-in-law, Syed Raheel Farook, whose younger brother was one of the two terrorists responsible for the San Bernardino shootings that killed 14 at the Inland Regional Center in December.

The arrests were the latest development in the FBI's ever-widening investigation into the attacks carried out by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik. The couple died in a gun battle with law officers hours after the killings.

Enrique Marquez Jr., who played the role of Chernykh's husband, was named as a co-conspirator in the fraud, according to the indictment. Marquez was charged late last year with buying two of the rifles used in the San Bernardino attack, and federal prosecutors have said he and Syed Rizwan Farook considered carrying out separate terror plots years earlier.

Farook's older brother, his wife and Chernykh were charged with conspiring to create a sham marriage between Marquez and Chernykh. Chernykh, 26, was also charged with fraud, misuse of visas, perjury and two counts of lying to federal investigators, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

"We owe the victims, and the entire community of San Bernardino, a thorough investigation that uncovers all criminal activity surrounding these events," U.S. Atty. Eileen M. Decker said in a statement after the arrests.

All three defendants pleaded not guilty Thursday afternoon in federal court in Riverside.

At one point, the judge asked Farook's mother, Rafia, to come to the front of the court to address questions about the bond. She stood for a time next to her son and briefly touched his arm. He placed his head on her arm and cried for a moment, before the judge asked them to separate.

She told the judge she would sign for the necessary bond amount, $25,000, if her son failed to make his next court appearance. She agreed to do the same for part of the bond for her daughter-in-law, which was set at $35,000.

Chernykh's bond was set at $50,000, which her child's father agreed to sign for. She was also ordered to submit to electronic monitoring, though for now, she will be turned over to immigration authorities who have placed a detainer on her once she posts bond.

All three were ordered to turn in their passports and prohibited from traveling outside of Southern California.

Ron Cordova, an attorney for Syed Raheel Farook, told reporters after the hearing that "this is a family that has suffered much, particularly by reason of the horrible, horrible acts of a family member who is no longer living. But those acts should not be attributed to the family."

The Farooks, both 31, posted bond and walked out of court just before 6 p.m. Both looked visibly upset; Tatiana Farook had tears in her eyes.

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If convicted of the marriage fraud conspiracy charges, all three defendants could face up to five years in federal prison. The additional charges against Chernykh carry a maximum sentence of 25 years.

Federal prosecutors have not alleged that the trio had any prior knowledge of the attack.

In recent months, the FBI's investigation has focused on tracking the shooters' movements Dec. 2 in the hopes of determining if anyone else was involved. The investigation led federal agents to try to gain access to an iPhone 5c used by Farook, nearly touching off a historic court battle with Apple Inc.

The FBI gained access to the phone late last month after receiving help from an unidentified third party, but no information from the device was used in the marriage fraud investigation, according to two law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case with the media.

Federal prosecutors said they determined Marquez was paid $200 a month for marrying Chernykh, who took part in the wedding only to gain legal status in the U.S. FBI agents interrogated Chernykh as part of the inquiry into the terror attack, and prosecutors say she lied during those interviews by pretending that she lived with Marquez when she actually resided in Ontario.

A 12-page indictment that was handed up Wednesday afternoon accuses Chernykh and Marquez of staging their entire relationship. Chernykh made three separate $200 deposits in a bank account she shared with Marquez in late 2015, according to the indictment.

The pair claimed they were married at a religious institution in Corona in November 2014, but Chernykh struggled from the start to play her part in the happily-ever-after charade, according to the indictment.

On Christmas Day 2014, Tatiana Farook told Chernykh to stop posting photos of herself with another man, the father of her child, on social media, prosecutors say.

When the couple learned they were going to be interviewed by immigration officials in late 2015, panic set in, according to the indictment. Syed Raheel Farook created a fraudulent lease agreement that suggested Marquez and Chernykh had been living together since November 2014, prosecutors allege. The document falsely claimed the couple lived with Farook and his wife at their home in Corona, prosecutors say.

In a November 2015 email exchange, Marquez and Chernykh discussed their mutual anxiety over their upcoming immigration interview because they had not been in contact with each other, according to the indictment.

Federal prosecutors say Tatiana Farook persisted with the lie 24 hours after the deadly attack. When interviewed by the FBI on Dec. 3, she insisted that Marquez and Chernykh had been living together at her Corona home, according to the indictment.

In the days after the attack, friends and neighbors of the brothers said they were polar opposites. Syed Raheel Farook served in the U.S. Navy for four years and had received medals for service in the "Global War on Terrorism." The older sibling was the extrovert of the two, friends say, loud and sociable compared with his brother.

Syed Raheel Farook married Tatiana Farook in 2011, with Marquez and the younger Farook serving as witnesses. Her younger sister, Chernykh, left Russia on a short-term visa in 2009. She dated a Los Angeles resident named Oscar Romero for several years, and the two had a child. In an interview with The Times last year, Romero insisted the couple split up when she married Marquez.

Federal prosecutors allege that Marquez admitted during interviews with FBI agents after the Dec. 2 attack that his marriage was a sham and provided details of his friendship with Syed Rizwan Farook.

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Stacy Mozer, one of Syed Raheel Farook's neighbors in Corona, said he was surprised to hear Farook had been arrested on charges related to marriage fraud. In private conversations, he said, Farook expressed great regret about the attack.

Another neighbor, who declined to give his name, said the FBI's investigation should be focused on the gunman, rather than his family.

"The guy spent four years in the Navy. I don't know what they want from him," the neighbor said. "It's his brother that's the idiot."

Times staff writer Matthew Hamilton contributed to this report.

Follow @lacrimes@JamesQueallyLAT and @palomaesquivel for more news on the San Bernardino terror attack and the investigation.

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