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Hung jury derails trial over alleged sham marriage

By Alan Duke, CNN
Soap opera actress Fernanda Romero is accused of paying a man to marry her for a green card.
Soap opera actress Fernanda Romero is accused of paying a man to marry her for a green card.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Judge in Los Angeles declares a mistrial
  • Most jurors said it was impossible to reach a verdict with a "hostile" juror
  • The judge decided not to replace that juror
  • Actress Fernanda Romero allegedly paid man to marry her for a green card
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Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- The judge declared a mistrial in the sham marriage trial of Mexican soap opera actress Fernanda Romero on Friday after jurors said they were deadlocked with no hope of agreeing.

The U.S. Attorney's office did not immediately say if the case will be retried, but the judge set a hearing for January to discuss the case.

A defense lawyer said the Romero was disappointed that the prosecution of her may continue.

It was a trial filled with so many twists and turns that the judge compared it to a soap opera.

Most of the 12 jurors individually told the judge on Thursday that they could not reach a verdict unless he replaced a "hostile" member of the jury. The juror was kept on the panel.

"It would be extremely difficult," one male juror told the judge.

U.S. District Judge Manuel Real decided not to remove the woman and instead ordered jurors to keep trying.

Ultimately, they could not decide if Romero married Kent Ross, a pizza delivery man and musician, for love or for a U.S. work visa.

Jurors heard the tearful testimony of the actress proclaiming love for her husband, along with evidence she engaged in a romance with a photographer less than a year after her wedding.

The prosecutor argued Romero paid 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 Nasatir, 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 present to 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," she said.

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," Romero said.

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

"There are all kinds of marriages," Nasatir 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.

Judge 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 JC Penney, 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.