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Diasporian News of Saturday, 14 October 2006

Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

12 months, 1 groom, 10 brides, 6 Ghanaians

Man among trio of alleged busy bigamists in metro Atlanta
USA - If William Fairley didn't kiss the bride after saying "I do" last October, it was for lack of time, not practice.

The clock read 2:30 p.m. that Friday afternoon. Fairley had just wed a woman from Kenya amid the blond wooden benches in a Gwinnett County courtroom. And marriage records show he must have been in a bit of a hurry.

Fairley would pledge his eternal devotion again less than four hours later, this time to a Ghanaian bride in front of the mahogany-stained pews of a Cobb County courtroom. The ceremonies were separated by 40 miles — and one rush hour.

It was the busiest day in a yearlong wedding spree that, if not for a fluke discovery by a court clerk, could have netted Fairley 11 or more wives.

Instead, records show, the chef from College Park has but 10 brides — and a cellmate. Fairley, 34, is in Gwinnett County Detention Center on $39,900 bond.

The St. Louis native was one of two men arrested last month in Gwinnett on multiple counts of bigamy and false swearing. The other, Chicago native Alvin Lorenzo Murdock of Norcross, married at least six women, according to police. In both cases, all of the brides were immigrants from Africa. Half came from a single country: Ghana.

And as if that weren't enough, Gwinnett police are now searching for a third alleged bigamist. They issued arrest warrants last week for Shawnta M. McBride, who police say married six men in Gwinnett, including four Ghanaian grooms.

Authorities say they've yet to turn up evidence that the alleged bigamists knew each other or were paid for their vows. But they do suspect that some of the brides and grooms were using the marriages to gain legal residency in the United States, said Cpl. Darren Moloney, a spokesman for the Gwinnett Police Department. They've referred the cases to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is investigating.

Fairley, in particular, was brazen, his marriage licenses show. His first two weddings were on consecutive days — in that same Gwinnett courtroom. Three separate magistrate judges conducted ceremonies for him twice. Apparently they never noticed it was the same 6-foot, 230-pound groom with a thin mustache and, presumably, a well-worn ring finger.

"We issue close to 4,000 marriage licenses a year," said Gwinnett Probate Judge Walter J. Clarke. "If they came in three days in a row, maybe they would be noticed."

District Attorney Danny Porter, who plans to prosecute the cases, said there must have been something in it for the alleged bigamists. And if these are indeed sham marriages, Porter said he suspects the practice goes well beyond Gwinnett. "It's certainly something we're going to have to look at — whether or not this is sort of a metrowide scheme."

Fairley faces seven counts of bigamy and false swearing for eight marriages in Gwinnett (one is presumed legal). Murdock and McBride face five counts each.

But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of marriage records statewide turned up two more marriages by Fairley in Cobb, including the one that busy Friday afternoon a year ago. And McBride, records show, married men in Cobb and Fulton, bringing her groom count to eight. Moloney said it's up to authorities in those jurisdictions to press any additional charges.

This isn't Gwinnett's first brush with bigamy infamy. A traveling minister grabbed headlines three years ago after he was sentenced to two years in prison for marrying a Duluth woman without divorcing his seven other wives.

But those marriages were spread out over more than a decade. Fairley wed 10 women in one year. Murdock took six brides in seven months. McBride lived up to her name seven times in just more than a year, and eight times in all.

ICE isn't talking about those specific cases. But one thing is clear. If these were "green card" marriages, they weren't garden variety. Organizers of most marriage frauds match up one willing U.S. citizen with one immigrant seeking legal status, said Rob Rodriguez, assistant special agent in charge at ICE's regional office in Atlanta.

That was the case last month in suburban Washington, where immigration agents arrested 22 people in a marriage fraud sting. Immigrants, mostly from Ghana, paid the masterminds $2,500 to $6,000 for each sham marriage, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The alleged bigamists in Gwinnett also tended to wed people from Ghana. But there was one key difference. Murdock, Fairley and McBride did all the marrying themselves, using the same names, birth dates and photo IDs each time, according to marriage records.

Fairley's wives lived all over metro Atlanta and ranged in age from 28 to 45. While six hailed from Ghana, the others were born in Cameroon, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Fairley declined through jail officials to be interviewed for this article and his attorney did not return a call seeking comment.

One of his wives, who asked that her name not be used, said she's ashamed of being conned by a man she fell in love with. "I didn't even tell my friends because I was so embarrassed," she said.

Sitting on the couch in her Alpharetta apartment, she described Fairley as a kind, quiet man who was good in the kitchen. She called him by his nickname, "Woody."

The two met while working together at an elder care home. She was server. He was a cook. They began dating and, after several months of courtship, Fairley proposed. The Cameroon-born woman said she wanted a traditional African wedding and was disappointed when Fairley insisted on a courthouse union.

Her first hint that something might be amiss didn't come until a month or so into the marriage, she said, when Fairley didn't help her pay rent and bills. A few more months went by and he stopped coming home some nights, too, she said. Then Fairley disappeared altogether, taking the wedding photos he asked a stranger to snap as the two pledged their lifelong commitment to each other in the Gwinnett courtroom.

She said she had no clue there were other brides — including one who married Fairley just six days prior to her wedding — until a detective called her last month. "He said I was No. 4," she said. "I said 'No. 4 what?' "

She was actually No. 5. And Fairley was only halfway down his aisles.

Fairley took his final bride in February. He wed a woman from Zambia beneath the octagon-shaped trace ceiling in Gwinnett's Courtroom 1C, where it all began a year earlier in Lawrenceville. With 10 brides, he had run out of ring fingers. Soon his luck would run out, too.

Last month, a woman arrived in probate court seeking a certified copy of her marriage license, Judge Clarke said. The clerk, as is routine, searched under the husband's name. But when she typed in "William James Fairley," eight marriages popped up on the screen. The clerk reported the discovery, and, within days, Fairley was in jail.

Murdock's six marriages — which occurred between October 2005 and April — came to light in a similar way, Clarke said, when a clerk entered his name into the system. Murdock, too, declined an interview through a jail official, and his attorney did not return a call seeking comment.

Because of the apparent abuses, Gwinnett now runs a quick check on everyone applying for a marriage license to see if the bride or groom has any suspiciously recent marriages, Clarke said. If so, that person has to show proof of divorce, he said.

The county can't detect, however, if someone is spreading multiple marriages across several counties, Clarke said, because Georgia doesn't keep an updated marriage database. Indeed, the Journal-Constitution analysis of marriage records across Georgia turned up one man who married women in Cobb, Gwinnett, Henry and Thomas counties over a 39-day period in the summer of 2004.

Back in Gwinnett, authorities are still tying to nail down what motivated the alleged bigamists — and their spouses. Participating in or helping organize scam marriages also can lead to felony charges of marriage fraud and perjury, offenses that can be grounds for deportation, ICE's Rodriguez said.

Gwinnett police have reached three of Fairley's wives, all of whom said they didn't know of the others when marrying him. And those who spoke briefly by phone to a Journal-Constitution reporter said they entered the marriages legitimately.

One bride said she broke off the relationship after finding out about the others. "I was very shocked, and I got out of it right away," she said before hanging up. "I have to deal with it the best way I can."

Another wife of Fairley was more defiant, sounding if she would stand by her man. "William is my husband," she said.

Moloney said police have found no signs that Fairley and Murdock knew each other, despite at least one connection. Murdock lived in the same Norcross area apartment complex as one of Fairley's wives.

That might sound a little too coincidental. Then again, the chances of the two men's lives overlapping went up with each wife — all 16 of them.

Staff writer Lateef Mungin and computer-assisted reporting editor David A. Milliron contributed to this article.

From February 2005 to February 2006, William James Fairley married 10 women from around metro Atlanta, according to a statewide analysis of marriage licenses. Here are a look at his wedding days, where his brides lived and where they were born:

 DATE LOCATION BRIDE HOME BRIDE BORN

Feb. 7, 2005 Gwinnett Lithonia Ghana

Feb. 8, 2005 Gwinnett Norcross Ghana

May 12, 2005 Gwinnett Austell Ghana

June 23, 2005 Gwinnett Gwinnett Ghana

June 29, 2005 Gwinnett Smyrna Cameroon

July 15, 2005 Cobb Austell Ghana

Sept. 20, 2005 Gwinnett McDonough Zimbabwe

Oct. 14, 2005 Gwinnett McDonough Ghana

Oct. 14, 2005 Cobb Norcross Kenya

Feb. 10, 2006 Gwinnett Dunwoody Zambia