Federal prosecutors called it immigration and marriage fraud, but the two South Florida couples they charged — and the man who brought them together — say it was something more like modern love.
Just days before the five suspects were scheduled to go to trial in Fort Lauderdale, prosecutors on Wednesday made the rare decision to drop all the charges against them.
“The federal government should stay out of our bedrooms,” said David O. Markus, one of the defense lawyers. “Not getting a perfect score on ‘The Newlywed Game’ shouldn’t be a federal crime.”
When law enforcement showed up to arrest Heather Bennett Likic and her husband Branko Likic earlier this year, investigators should have figured out that the Fort Lauderdale couple are genuinely in love, Markus said.
“Three years after they were married, they were arrested in the marital bed,” Markus said. “Most marriages after three years have ended in divorce, or the husband is sleeping on the couch. Calling this marriage a sham is just wrong.”
Accused of immigration and marriage fraud conspiracy and related charges were: Srdjan Jovcic, 51, of Hollywood and Wallington, N.J.; Goran Bjelovic, 44, of Aventura; Ljiljana Aleksic, 54, of Orlando; Branko Likic, 35, and Heather Bennett Likic, 31, both of Fort Lauderdale.
Prosecutors alleged that Jovcic, who became a U.S. citizen after moving here from Serbia, was an illegal marriage broker who set up marriages of convenience to help himself and two other Serbian men try to get work permits, permanent resident status and U.S. citizenship.
The case started out in 2009 as an undercover criminal investigation of allegations that Jovcic, who runs a U.S. company that sells vehicles overseas, was involved in the illegal sale of drugs and money laundering.
Federal agents used confidential informants and wiretapped Jovcic’s phone, but found no evidence to support their allegation that Jovcic was a drug dealer or money launderer so they tried to pursue the immigration fraud case, said his lawyer, Paul Petruzzi.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the case, or the reasons for dismissing the charges.
In court records, prosecutors wrote that agents intercepted phone calls during which Jovcic talked about finding women who were willing to marry Bjelovic and Likic, both of whom had overstayed their U.S. visitor visas, but wanted to work here and avoid being deported.
The women included Bennett, who was born in the U.S., and Aleksic, who was in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen after she came here as a refugee from Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004.
Prosecutors accused Bennett and Likic, who married in Broward County in 2010, of lying to immigration officials about several matters — including that their sex life was “amazing,” that Likic said Bennett “reminded him of his mother a little bit” and that they met at a Broward County bar in 2009.
Markus said he couldn’t imagine how prosecutors planned to prove that the more personal statements were lies. Markus said the couple is in love and Bennett’s son from a prior relationship, Logan, 4, calls Likic “Daddy.”
The other couple involved, Bjelovic and Aleksic, married in the Orlando area in 2010, but divorced in 2013. Prosecutors said they lied about their relationship and living together, and that Bjelovic married another woman, a permanent resident, the same day that his divorce was finalized.
The story of the Bjelovic-Aleksic marriage is nothing unusual in modern society either, said Bjelovic’s lawyer, Fred Haddad.
“It ended in divorce — that’s no different to half the marriages in this country,” Haddad said. “There was a full marriage, a ceremony — this is no different to the arranged marriages that still take place in a lot of communities.”
The case was scheduled to go to trial on June 23 and all five defense lawyers said they were ready to go, but prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge James Cohn to postpone the trial, saying they needed more time to prepare and that not all the phone calls and records had been translated to English.
“It’s Serbian, not Martian,” said Petruzzi. “How can you not be ready for trial after four years of investigating — unless the government had some other problems with proving their case?”
After the judge ruled that the case was going to trial as planned, prosecutors dropped the case.
The defense lawyers said it was the right call.
“The government did the right thing to dismiss this case. It has better ways to use its very scarce resources,” Markus said.
Petruzzi said his client, Jovcic, had his own reasons for making matches for his “friends from the old country” and was not doing it “solely for citizenship purposes.” All of the defense lawyers truly felt sorry for their clients and thought they were nice people who had been wrongly accused, Petruzzi and Markus said.
“People hook up for all kinds of reasons. Matchmakers and friends put people together because it makes them feel good,” Petruzzi said. “Some guys need help meeting women — think of all those poor guys in Iowa who marry Russian brides.”
Prosecutors could possibly file the same or similar charges again, but Markus is hopeful that they won’t. It would “look like an end run around the judge’s order if they did,” he said.