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Jurors to decide whether soap opera actress faked marriage for green card

By Alan Duke, CNN
Fernanda Romero, a 28-year-old actress-singer-model, starred in Telemundo's "Wounded Soul" soap opera.
Fernanda Romero, a 28-year-old actress-singer-model, starred in Telemundo's "Wounded Soul" soap opera.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jurors told the judge Wednesday they needed more time to decide
  • Fernanda Romero is a Mexican actress who also models
  • The actress allegedly paid a California man $5,000 to marry her
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Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- Twelve jurors must decide whether the marriage of a Mexican soap opera actress to a California pizza delivery man was a fact built on love or fiction designed to fool immigration agents.

The question is apparently not easy for jurors who told the judge late Wednesday that they needed to return for more deliberations Thursday. Their answer could send the couple to prison.

Jurors can compare the tearful testimony of the actress proclaiming love for her husband to evidence that she engaged in a romance with a photographer less than a year after her wedding.

The prosecutor argued Fernanda Romero paid Kent Ross $5,000 to be her husband in June, 2005 so she could get a U.S. work visa.

"Why would anybody have to be paid to marry her?" asked defense lawyer Michael Nasitir, pointing to the beautiful actress-singer-model.

Romero and Ross were both 23 when they had a Los Angeles wedding. Only the bride's mother and a handful of others attended, but Romero said a larger wedding was impossible because he is a Mormon and she's a devout Catholic.

There was no honeymoon, which Special Assistant U.S. Attorney James Left argued was evidence of a sham marriage.

"You'd figure they could go somewhere, Palm Springs, San Diego," Left said during closing arguments Wednesday.

They did have pictures together, which the prosecution suggested were staged to show immigration officials who would decide on her green card.

When immigration agents conducted a surprise "bed check" at Romero's Los Angeles apartment in October, 2007, they found her, but not him. They found Ross at a Hollywood apartment, they testified.

Romero testified that she really loved Ross when they got married and she intended to build a life with him. The first months were "very loving, fun," she said. "We socialized together, passionate. It was the honeymoon stage."

But his drinking and late-night cavorting split them just seven months after their wedding, she said. "We started to fight a lot, sweat a lot, throw things. It was not healthy."

Her defense lawyer argued jurors only have to conclude that the marriage was real when it began.

"There are all kinds of marriages," Nasitir said. "No one else knows if people are in love."

The case is unusual because marriage fraud charges are usually litigated by immigration authorities rather than prosecuted as criminal cases.

U.S. District Judge Manuel Real blocked the defense from using much of the evidence they said would show it was only investigated because Romero was turned in by a vengeful photographer angry that she rebuffed his romantic advances.

She met Markus Klinko at a Hollywood casting call about the same time her marriage was "on the rocks," she said.

Klinko, a 49-year-old Swiss native, is the star of his own reality TV show, Bravo's "Double Exposure."

Romero said the relationship initially was "professional and creative," but she eventually engaged in a "short affair" with Klinko as he helped with her modeling career.

"I felt very pressured and I was vulnerable," Romero said as she cried. "It was the biggest mistake I've done in my life."

Her friendship with Klinko turned into a nightmare when she decided to end the affair, she said.

"Mr. Klinko wanted more and more and he knew I wasn't able to give it to him," she said.

Klinko threatened to turn her in to immigration officials, she said.

"He was losing it, he was very psycho," Romero said. "I was very scared, because he wouldn't stop."

The federal complaint against Romero said the immigration investigation began after agents were given evidence gathered by a private detective hired by Klinko.

When Klinko testified for the prosecution last week he said it was "completely incorrect" that his motivation was to get Romero deported.

Instead, the investigator was gathering evidence to be used in a lawsuit against Michael Ball, the founder and owner of the Rock & Republic fashion company, Klinko said.

The criminal complaint named Ball as a target of the federal investigation, alleging that he helped arrange the sham marriage while Romero was modeling for his company.

Klinko said his lawyer turned the evidence over to the government only because he feared Klinko might be extorted by Ball.

"My case has never been against Fernanda," Klinko said after his testimony. "I wish her the best."

They could get between 15 and 21 months in prison if convicted, though such cases usually produce shorter sentences, according to the prosecutor.

Romero's show business career began in Mexico at age 16 when she joined the ensemble Frizzby, her Internet Movie Database biography says. The group toured Mexico and Central America, releasing two top-10 singles, it says.

She started hosting television shows and appearing on commercials in Mexico when she was 18, it says.

Romero has appeared in print and TV ad campaigns for Rock and Republic, Clean and Clear, Pepsi, Apple and JCPenney, it says.

"She was cast in Telemundo's original production 'Wounded Soul,' where she was not only a lead actress, but also a lead singer, performing two songs in the soap opera's soundtrack," her online biography says.