Feds return money to man in marriage fraud probe
Walled Lake, Mich. — Federal agents arrived around dawn at a home in suburban Detroit. Foggy at that hour and shirtless, the owner answered the door and was told he was the target of a sham marriage investigation.
“I said, ‘Excuse me? I’ve been married to my wife for 32 years,’” John Gutowski of Northville recalled. “I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was shocking.”
Gutowski was charged in 2013 with conspiring to commit marriage fraud among Eastern Europeans who were living at his apartment buildings. The government also confiscated about $250,000, claiming it could be the illegal fruit of harboring people who were desperate to marry U.S. residents to stay in the country.
More than two years later, however, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit has closed the case. Charges have been dropped, and the government is returning all but $15,000. Gutowski grudgingly agreed to give up part to finally settle the matter and move on, but he resents how his life was put in knots.
“They considered me guilty, and I felt I had to prove I was innocent,” said Gutowski, 55, who moved to Michigan from Poland when he was a teenager. “I always felt if you work hard and pay your taxes, nobody’s going to bother you. I don’t feel that way anymore.”
His attorney, Ray Cassar, believes a disgruntled informant got the government’s attention.
“They have the power to arrest and create an amazing amount of anxiety,” Cassar said of investigators.
In a 2013 court filing, the government said it found an unusually large number of suspicious marriages among residents of Gutowski’s suburban apartments, including 23 requests for changes in immigration status at one complex between 2003 and 2012. In one incident, he was accused of changing the date on a lease to help a man who was planning to marry an American woman.
“Just because people lived in my apartments and got married — what does it have to do with me?” Gutowski said in an interview at his apartment building in Walled Lake.
He said friends in the restaurant business occasionally reached out to him for affordable housing for immigrant employees. Gutowski, an immigrant himself, was sympathetic.
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade declined to discuss why the criminal case was dropped. She said her office considers evidence, the availability of witnesses and whether there might be alternatives.
“Based on the facts of this case, we determined that a small percentage of the funds seized should be forfeited” to the government, McQuade said, referring to the $15,000.
Jorin Rubin, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said it appears prosecutors “had a bad criminal case against” Gutowski. But she noted that the legal standard is different when it comes to fighting over money seized by the government.
“The government just wears you out and you just want to get it over with,” said Rubin, who had no role in the case. “It’s not fair but it’s an understandable compromise.”
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