RIVERSIDE (CBSLA.com/AP) — Three people with close family ties to the couple responsible for the San Bernardino terror attack pleaded not guilty in an alleged marriage-fraud scheme.
The defendants were arrested Thursday morning during two raids in Corona and Ontario. They are 31-year-old Syed Raheel Farook, his 31-year-old wife, Tatiana, and her 26-year-old sister, Mariya Chernykh.
The trio pleaded not guilty in federal court in Riverside Thursday afternoon. All three were released on bail. Bond was set at $25,000 for Raheel, $35,000 for his wife and $50,000 for Chernykh.
The Farooks’ next-door neighbor in Corona said she spoke to the couple after they got home. “They’re very stressed. I am not going to tell you what they said,” she told CBS2/KCAL9’s Erica Nochlin. “They’re great people, and this is just ruining their lives. And they don’t deserve that.”
The defendants’ attorneys said even if the fraud charges were true, no way did their clients have a hand in the massacre. “Our client, Ms. Tatiana Farook, was not charged or indicated to be involved in any way with the sad and tragic events of last December,” Tatiana’s attorney said.
“This case is simply about one family member helping another family member,” said Raheel Farook’s attorney Ron Cordova.
Some neighbors speculated that the FBI could have brought the marriage fraud charges as a way of pressuring the defendants for more information about the terror attack.
A federal grand jury issued a five-count indictment against the accused Wednesday, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
According to the indictment, the three defendants carried out a marriage fraud conspiracy to obtain immigration benefits for Chernykh, who allegedly entered into a sham marriage to Enrique Marquez Jr.
Marquez is charged with providing assault rifles to Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, who killed 14 people and wounded 22 others at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino on Dec. 2. He is also charged with conspiring with Rizwan Farook on two previously planned attacks that were never carried out.
Marquez confessed to the scheme when authorities questioned him about the shootings, and he acknowledged getting $200 a month to marry Chernykh, according to his criminal complaint.
If convicted of conspiracy to make false statements on federal immigration documents, the Farooks could face up to five years in prison.
Chernykh also is charged with fraud, misuse of visas and other documents, perjury and two counts of making false statements, which could mean up to 25 years in prison. A judge ordered that Chernykh, who prosecutors alleged was most culpable for the sham marriage, be subject to electronic monitoring.
The government may have brought the charges as a bargaining chip in order to get more information that the Farooks and Chernykh haven’t shared, said James Wedick, a former FBI agent who was with the agency 35 years.
“It suggests to me they weren’t talking so the government decided to ask a grand jury to return charges,” Wedick said. “If they were cooperating, they’d probably make some kind of deal.”
According to an indictment, Syed Raheel and Tatiana Farook acted as witnesses to the union of her sister and Marquez and created a joint checking account along with a backdated lease to make it appear as if all four of them lived together.
Prosecutors said Tatiana accompanied her sister to buy a $50 wedding ring, and Marquez and Chernykh posed in photos that were staged to make the marriage appear real.
All the while, Marquez was living with his mother next door to the house where the Farook brothers grew up, and Chernykh was living in a different city with her boyfriend, also the father of her child, according to the criminal complaint against Marquez.
Raheel Farook, the shooter’s older brother, earned two medals for fighting global terrorism for serving in the Navy from 2003 to 2007. In February, FBI agents spent hours searching his home in the Southern California city of Corona, carting out armloads of thick manila envelopes, a computer tower and an unidentifiable object so heavy it took two men to carry. That search warrant was sealed, and it wasn’t immediately clear if it was connected to Thursday’s arrests.
The Farook family maintains they had no inkling about the plot. His mother, Rafia Farook, lived with him, Tashfeen Malik, and their newborn daughter in a townhome near San Bernardino. She said she never saw anything to suggest her son and daughter-in-law were planning a massacre.
Malik was from Pakistan and came to the U.S. in July 2014 so she could marry Rizwan Farook, whose parents were born in Pakistan. Farook was born in Chicago and grew up in Southern California.
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