Three people with family connections to Syed Rizwan Farook, the gunman in the mass shooting last year in San Bernardino, California, were arrested on Thursday on charges related to an alleged "sham marriage" for immigration purposes.
The FBI served search warrants and carried out arrests at two California residences: One in the city of Ontario in the southwestern San Bernardino County, and another in Corona in Riverside County. Both raids are connected to the ongoing investigation into the December 2015 rampage, where Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and wounded 21 others at a holiday gathering of Farook's coworkers. Authorities have claimed the attack was inspired by the Islamic State.
The FBI identified the occupants of the Corona residence as Farook's brother Syed Raheel Farook and his wife Tatiana Farook, both 31. They were arrested on Thursday. Syed Raheel Farook served in the US Navy from 2003 to 2007 and received two medals recognizing his contributions to the "global war on terror."
The Farook brothers have been painted as polar opposites. According to Reuters, which cited interviews with their friends, neighbors, and former classmates, Raheel is religious and attended a local mosque, but he also dated non-Muslim girls and drank alcohol. His brother, who was killed in a shootout with police, was characterized as being quiet, more outwardly devout, and prone to temper tantrums. Raheel, described as laid back and extroverted, joined the Navy after he graduated from high school, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq.
Tatiana Farook's sister, Mariya Chernykh, 26, was also arrested on Thursday. The sisters are both Russian nationals. Chernykh's husband, Enrique Marquez, Jr., is currently awaiting trial on charges that he purchased one of the rifles used in the mass shooting, and conspired with Syed Rizwan Farook, his former neighbor, to carry out shooting and bombing plots in 2011, a plan which they eventually abandoned.
Marquez was also charged in 2015 for allegedly entering into a "sham marriage" with Chernykh so that she could stay in the US. He is accused of lying on an immigration form by falsely declaring that Chernykh lived with him.
All three defendants arrested on Thursday are charged with conspiring "to knowingly make under oath a false statement."
According to a federal indictment, Syed Raheel Farook and Tatiana Farook abetted the "sham marriage" by serving as witnesses to Marquez and Chernykh's wedding, taking staged family photos of the pair, helping them set up a joint checking accounts, and creating a "backdated lease" to "create the illusion" that both couples shared a "marital residence."
A statement from the US Attorney's Office in Central California said federal agents learned of the dubious marriage while investigating the mass shooting. "The investigation determined that Marquez agreed to marry Chernykh so she could obtain immigration benefits that were not available to her because she is a Russian citizen and did not have legal status in the United States," the federal prosecutors said.
Chernykh allegedly paid Marquez to marry her, and she is also charged with forging visas, permits, and other immigration documents. If convicted, all three individuals arrested on Thursday could face a maximum of five years in jail.
Federal agents have been grasping for clues that may help them uncover whether Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife had any help in carrying out or planning the attack.
"This is the latest step in the comprehensive investigation into the horrific attacks in San Bernardino," said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker in a statement. "Today's arrests open a new phase in the process of bringing to justice all individuals who allegedly committed crimes that were uncovered during our exhaustive investigation."
James Struyk, the acting assistant director of the FBI's Los Angeles field office, said the FBI has been working "around the clock" to find "immediate answers" about what led to the December shootings.
"Last year's tragedy in San Bernardino showed again how our nation's legal immigration system can be subverted and exploited by those intent on doing this country harm," said Joseph Marcias, who heads US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles. Marcias stressed that their officers are using "their unique skills and authorities" to "pursue individuals and organizations that pose a threat to domestic security."
The FBI and Apple were engaged in a high-profile legal dispute over unlocking Farook's iPhone, but the conflict was resolved last month when the feds paid $1.4 million for outside experts to help crack the device. It's unclear what evidence — if any — the search of the phone revealed.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen