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Soap opera actress tearfully denies 'sham marriage'

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.
  • Fernanda Romero testifies in her own defense Tuesday
  • The actress tells jurors her marriage was not fake
  • Closing arguments are set for Wednesday
  • Romero is charged with paying a pizza delivery man to marry her

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- Closing arguments are set for Wednesday in the trial of Mexican soap opera actress Fernanda Romero on federal charges that her marriage was an illegal sham intended only to earn her a U.S. work permit.

On Tuesday, Romero tearfully testified that she really loved Kent Ross, the pizza deliveryman she married five years ago.

Their marriage was real, but it soon fell apart because of his drinking and her focus on a modeling and acting career, Romero told jurors.

Romero is accused of paying Ross $5,000 to marry her on June 12, 2005, but the prosecutor alleged they never lived together as a couple.

U.S. District Judge Manuel Real blocked defense lawyers from using evidence they said would show Romero was set up and turned in by a vengeful photographer angry that she rebuffed his romantic advances.

The job of convincing jurors the marriage was real fell on Romero, a 28-year-old actress-singer-model who starred in Telemundo's "Wounded Soul" soap opera. The prosecutor suggested Romero was using her professional acting skills to sell her own fiction.

Romero testified she married for love, not a green card.

"To be in a loving relationship, forever and ever, like my parents," she testified.

The couple didn't have a family wedding because he is Mormon and she is Catholic, she said.

They kept separate Hollywood apartments because he couldn't break a lease and she traveled a lot, she said.

The first months were "very loving, fun," she said. "We socialized together, passionate. It was the honeymoon stage."

Romero and Ross separated after less than a year together because "he was coming on very late and drunk," she said. "We started to fight a lot, sweat a lot, throw things. It was not healthy."

The villain in Romero's script would be Markus Klinko, a celebrity photographer she met 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."

Ross, 28, also had his turn on the witness stand Tuesday, hoping to convince jurors that he and Romero were a real couple at one time.

"I was in love with her," Ross testified. "It felt right at the time, so I rolled with it."

He was asked why he asked the actress to marry him after knowing her for only a short time.

"I had a tiger by the tail and I wanted to keep her here," he said.

Romero and Ross sat directly in front of jurors throughout the one-week trial, holding hands much of the time.

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

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

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.