ST. LOUIS • It’s a complicated love tale whose twists led to a federal criminal charge.
A married man meets a new woman, from Ukraine, and fears she must leave when her student visa runs out. So he offers another man, already engaged to someone else, money to marry the Ukrainian and give her grounds to stay.
Then the new groom’s old fiancée brings the deal crashing down.
That’s the story, according to federal officials in St. Louis who have charged the Ukrainian, Dar’ya Chernova, 38, with attempting to falsely procure naturalization and lying to an immigration official.
In court documents and testimony, federal prosecutors and agents say that James Douglas Barding, a lawyer in Jefferson City, offered $36,000 to a high school teacher from the same area, Timothy Dunville, to marry Chernova. It was not stated whether the money was paid.
Barding was, they say, “intimately involved” with Chernova. She attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City on a tennis scholarship, her lawyer said, and would later graduate from the University of Missouri with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering.
Chernova and Dunville were married by a municipal judge in Jackson, Mo., on March 13, 2005 — with Barding as a witness — and later filed paperwork with immigration officials so she could stay, prosecutors said.
But Dunville’s former fiancée, with whom he has a child, tipped off officials.
Chernova was named on an indictment June 21 that was sealed until her arrest in November.
At that time, Chernova was an engineer working in Arizona, court records show. She also has worked on research for the Department of Defense, according to online resumes, specializing in micro-air vehicles: drones the size of birds and insects.
Barding has handled civil and criminal cases in federal court, primarily in Jefferson City. He represented Dunville in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filed on March 17, 2005. He also represented him in a child custody case in Cole County in October of 2005, involving the former fiancée.
In a 2010 interview with immigration officials, Chernova lied when she said Dunville was the father of her second child, according to claims in court documents. DNA tests proved that Barding was the father of both her first and second, prosecutors say.
In accented English, Chernova pleaded not guilty Monday to the charges. Her attorney, Brocca Smith, declined to comment on case specifics but said it was likely to go to trial.
Smith said she believed that Chernova and Dunville remain married and that Chernova’s citizenship application was still pending.
Neither Dunville nor Barding was present at the hearing. They have not been charged, according to available court records.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Ferrell, who is handling the case, declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.
Reached by phone, Barding said, “The fact that my name has been bandied about as a participant in some of this is interesting, at best.” He declined further comment, referring questions to his lawyer, Chris Slusher, who had no comment.
Dunville also would not comment.
The allegations have a familiar ring at the federal courthouse here.
In 2007, the head of the St. Louis office of Missouri’s public defender system was sentenced to a year of probation for marriage fraud and had his law license suspended for two years. Eric Affholter had arranged to have his boyfriend, who was from Peru, marry a friend who also was a work subordinate, in order to stay in the country.
That arrangement resulted in criminal charges against Affholter and his lover, Pedro Cerna-Rojas, who was never arrested and left the country. Affholter, his subordinate and her live-in boyfriend, a St. Louis prosecutor, all resigned.