United States Court of Appeals For the First Circuit
JECINTA WAMBUI NGIGE,
APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MAINE
[Hon. John A. Woodcock, Jr., U.S. District Judge]
Barron, Selya, and Stahl, Circuit Judges.
Lawrence Gatei, with whom Immigration & Business Law Group, LLP was on brief, for appellant. Gail Fisk Malone, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Thomas E. Delahanty II, United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellee.
March 17, 2015
STAHL, Circuit Judge. Following a bench trial on a
record of stipulated facts, the district court convicted Defendant-
Appellant Jecinta Wambui Ngige of conspiring to defraud the United
States by participating in a sham marriage to secure a change in
her immigration status. On appeal, she argues that the prosecution
was time-barred because she committed no overt act in furtherance
of the conspiracy within the five-year period before the return of
the indictment. We affirm.
I. Facts and Background
On June 13, 2012, a federal grand jury returned an
indictment charging Ngige with conspiracy to defraud the United
States, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. The indictment alleged
that a third party (later identified as James Mbugua); MF (later
identified as Michael Frank), a citizen of the United States; and
Ngige, a citizen of Kenya who had entered the United States
lawfully but whose authorization to remain in the United States had
expired, "knowingly and willfully conspired and agreed . . . to
participate in a sham marriage, and to make sworn false statements
about that marriage to agencies of the United States Government,
for the purpose of defrauding the United States." The indictment
maintained that the conspiracy had two objectives: (1) for Ngige's
co-conspirators to profit financially by accepting payments from
her in exchange for participating in the sham marriage; and (2) for
Ngige to "acquire a change of her United States immigration status
to which she would not otherwise have been entitled by making false
representations to agencies of the United States government about
her marriage to and relationship with [Frank]."
The indictment charged Ngige with committing eight overt
acts in furtherance of the conspiracy. According to the
indictment, Ngige (1) arranged with another individual (Mbugua) to
meet a United States citizen willing to marry her; (2) traveled to
Maine on January 30, 2004, to meet Frank and, with him and other
co-conspirators, apply for a marriage license, falsely stating on
the application that she and Frank lived together; and (3) entered
into a sham marriage with Frank, knowing that the "sole purpose of
the wedding was to permit her to apply for a change in her
immigration status to which she would not otherwise have been
entitled." The indictment alleged that Ngige then (4) signed a
Form I-485, dated March 19, 2004, seeking to adjust her immigration
status on the basis of her marriage, which was subsequently filed
with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service ("USCIS"); (5)
along with the Form I-485, filed or caused to be filed a Form I-
130, also dated March 19, 2004, bearing Frank's forged signature
and falsely representing that the two lived together in Attleboro,
Massachusetts; and (6) filed or caused to be filed various
documents in support of the I-485 and I-130 petitions, some
purporting to show that she and Frank lived together although they
did not. The indictment further stated that sometime after the I-
485 and I-130 petitions were filed with USCIS, Frank refused to
assist Ngige with her change of immigration status request, and
thereafter, Ngige (7) signed and filed a Form I-360, seeking a
change of immigration status under the Violence Against Women Act
("VAWA") on the grounds that her citizen-spouse, Frank, was abusive
to her. The Form I-360, dated August 14, 2006, falsely stated that
she and Frank currently lived together. Finally, the indictment
alleged that (8) on August 6, 2007, Ngige filed a psychological
evaluation in support of her Form I-360 VAWA petition. That
evaluation, dated September 28, 2006, contained various material
falsehoods about the trajectory of Ngige's relationship with Frank.
In the district court, Ngige filed a motion to dismiss
the indictment as time-barred, arguing that the filing of the
psychological evaluation on August 6, 2007 -- the only overt act
alleged within the five-year statute of limitations period, see 18
U.S.C. § 3282(a) -- was not done in furtherance of the charged
conspiracy. She also asserted that both she and Frank withdrew
from the conspiracy in 2006, and that she had disavowed the
conspiracy by filing for divorce. The district court denied the
motion, holding that Ngige's arguments rested on disputes of fact
which would need to be resolved by the presentation of evidence at
trial. United States v. Ngige, No. 2:12-cr-00098-JAW, 2013 WL
950689 , at *2 (D. Me. Mar. 12, 2013).
Ngige waived her right to a jury trial, and the case
proceeded to a bench trial on a record of stipulated facts and
attendant exhibits. The following paragraphs summarize the
stipulations before the court.
Ngige, a native of Kenya, traveled to the United States
on a visitor's visa in December 2001. After her visa expired six
months later, she remained in the United States without a legal
basis for doing so. Sometime prior to January 30, 2004, Ngige
agreed to pay Mbugua to introduce her to a United States citizen
willing to marry her for financial consideration. The stipulations
averred that this arrangement had "two goals. One was for Mbugua
and the U.S. citizen/husband to make money. The other was for Ms.
Ngige to be able to apply for lawful residency . . . as the spouse
of a U.S. citizen by marrying Frank and pretending to establish a
life with him."
On January 30, 2004, Ngige traveled from Massachusetts to
Maine to meet with Mbugua and Frank. Ngige and Frank obtained a
marriage license, untruthfully indicating that they lived together
in Lewiston, Maine. The two were then married in a brief civil
ceremony. Ngige paid Mbugua, who gave some of the money to Frank.
Ngige then returned to Massachusetts. At Ngige's request, Frank
traveled to Massachusetts three times after the wedding, and on at
least one occasion, she paid Frank the cost of his travel. While
he was in Massachusetts, Ngige and Frank organized immigration
paperwork and took steps to make it appear as though they lived
together, such as opening a joint bank account.
On March 19, 2004, Ngige signed a Form I-485, Application
to Register Permanent Resident or Adjust Status, to adjust her
immigration status based on her marriage to Frank. The Form I-485
was filed with USCIS, along with a Form I-130, Petition for Alien
Relative, which purported to bear Frank's signature, and various
documents in support of the petitions. The I-130 form and some of
the supporting documents represented that Ngige and Frank lived
together in Attleboro, Massachusetts, in order to "create the
impression that she and Mr. Frank lived together and shared a life
when they did not."
USCIS scheduled Ngige's change-of-status request for an
interview and mailed her notice of a date and time. Frank refused
to accompany her to the interview, even after she traveled to Maine
twice to convince him to continue helping her with her petition.
The parties stipulated that sometime in 2005, during Ngige's second
trip to Maine, Frank withdrew from the conspiracy and had no
further involvement in it.
The stipulations stated that on January 31, 2006, Ngige
filed for divorce and that her complaint for divorce falsely stated
that she and Frank lived together until January 6, 2005. The
divorce was finalized in April 2007. On August 14, 2006, while the
divorce was still pending, Ngige signed and submitted the Form I-
360 VAWA petition seeking a change in immigration status as a self-
petitioning spouse of an abusive U.S. citizen. On the form, she
named Frank as the abusive citizen-spouse and wrote that the two
lived together in Attleboro from February 2006 until "present." In
support of her petition, Ngige submitted multiple documents
previously submitted to USCIS in March 2004 with the I-485 and I-
On July 15, 2007, USCIS informed Ngige that the agency
could not act on her VAWA I-360 petition absent evidence that Frank
subjected her to battery or extreme cruelty. In response, on
August 6, 2007, Ngige filed a psychological evaluation dated
September 28, 2006. The evaluation contained Ngige's knowingly
false statements purporting to describe how she and Frank met,
began dating, and married before Frank became emotionally abusive
to Ngige. The evaluation reported that Ngige suffered from
depression and panic attacks due to the abuse. Upon receipt of the
evaluation, USCIS requested further documentation of spousal abuse.
Ngige submitted no further documentation, and USCIS denied her VAWA
petition on November 2, 2007.
Aside from the foregoing stipulations and six attendant
exhibits, neither party sought to introduce any further evidence.
On September 9, 2013, the district court found Ngige guilty of
conspiracy as charged in the indictment. Ngige requested written
findings of fact, see Fed. R. Crim. P. 23(c), which the district
court issued on September 18, 2013. United States v. Ngige, No.
2:12-cr-00098-JAW, 2013 WL 5303725 (D. Me. Sept. 18, 2013). The
district court adopted the parties' stipulations as its findings of
fact, id. at *1, and explained its guilty verdict, id. at *4–5. On
January 29, 2014, the district court sentenced her to four months
in prison, followed by one year of supervised release. This appeal
Ngige's appeal rests on her contention that the district
court incorrectly found that the filing of the psychological
evaluation in support of her VAWA petition constituted an overt act
in furtherance of the charged conspiracy. We address this and
related arguments at both the motion to dismiss and motion for
acquittal stages of the proceedings.
A. Sufficiency of the Indictment
We begin with our de novo review of the district court's
refusal to dismiss the indictment on statute of limitations
grounds. United States v. Stewart, 744 F.3d 17 , 21 (1st Cir.
The government charged Ngige under 18 U.S.C. § 371, which
is subject to the general five-year statute of limitations for
criminal actions, see 18 U.S.C. § 3282(a). The indictment was
filed on June 13, 2012. To be timely, the indictment must allege
that the conspiracy still existed and that at least one overt act
in furtherance of the conspiracy was committed after June 13, 2007.
See Stewart, 744 F.3d at 21. Both parties agreed below and on
appeal that only the filing of the psychological evaluation on
August 6, 2007 fits within § 3282(a)'s five-year time frame. Ngige
argues that submitting the psychological evaluation cannot be
considered an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy charged,
because her co-conspirators did not contemplate utilizing VAWA to
achieve a change in Ngige's immigration status. See Grunewald v.
United States, 353 U.S. 391 , 397 (1957) ("[T]he crucial question in
determining whether the statute of limitations has run is the scope
of the conspiratorial agreement, for it is that which determines
both the duration of the conspiracy, and whether the act relied on
as an overt act may properly be regarded as in furtherance of the
The problem with Ngige's argument is that it fails to
attack the facial validity of the indictment and instead challenges
the government's substantive case. An indictment must allege each
of the required elements of conspiracy, but the government need not
put forth specific evidence to survive a motion to dismiss.
Stewart, 744 F.3d at 21 (citing Fed. R. Crim. P. 7(c)(1)). When a
defendant seeks dismissal of an indictment, courts take the facts
alleged in the indictment as true, mindful that "the question is
not whether the government has presented enough evidence to support
the charge, but solely whether the allegations in the indictment
are sufficient to apprise the defendant of the charged offense."
United States v. Savarese, 686 F.3d 1 , 7 (1st Cir. 2012). Indeed,
"courts routinely rebuff efforts to use a motion to dismiss as a
way to test the sufficiency of the evidence behind an indictment's
allegations." United States v. Guerrier, 669 F.3d 1 , 4 (1st Cir.
Here, the indictment alleged that the conspiracy's
objective was to pay Frank and Mbugua to help Ngige "acquire a
change of her United States immigration status" by "making false
representations . . . about her marriage to and relationship with
[Frank]." The psychological evaluation filed in support of the
VAWA petition, which the indictment alleged contained "material
falsehoods" about the relationship, sought to achieve just that.
The district court properly concluded that Ngige's more limited
characterization of the conspiracy's scope, along with her
contention that the conspiracy had ended before the filing of the
psychological evaluation, rested on factual disputes left to the
factfinder. See Stewart, 744 F.3d at 22; see also United States v.
Upton, 559 F.3d 3 , 11 (1st Cir. 2009) ("Determining the contours of
the conspiracy ordinarily is a factual matter entrusted largely to
B. Sufficiency of the Evidence
Ngige raises various challenges to the sufficiency of the
evidence supporting her conviction. She again asserts that the
filing of the psychological evaluation in support of her VAWA
petition cannot be considered an overt act because it exceeded the
scope of the charged conspiracy. Ngige also argues that the
conspiracy was no longer ongoing at the time she filed the
psychological evaluation. We review a bench trial conviction de
novo, examining the facts and inferences in the light most
favorable to the verdict. United States v. Tum, 707 F.3d 68 , 69
(1st Cir. 2013).
To make out a case of conspiracy under 18 U.S.C. § 371,
the government must show the existence of an agreement with an
unlawful object (here, marriage fraud, see 8 U.S.C. § 1325(c)), the
defendant's knowing participation in the conspiracy, and an overt
act in furtherance of that agreement. United States v. Serunjogi,
767 F.3d 132 , 139 (1st Cir. 2014). Ngige concedes that the record
establishes the existence of the conspiracy and her knowing
participation in it, but argues that the scope of the conspiracy
was limited to pursuing a change in her immigration status through
the "ordinary" marriage-based application process -- that is,
through a Form I-130 and a Form I-485 -- and thus that filing the
psychological evaluation in support of her VAWA application
constituted her own unilateral deed beyond the bounds of the
parties' agreement. Without the filing of the psychological
evaluation, her argument goes, the prosecution is time-barred.
We find this argument unavailing. Nowhere in the
parties' stipulations adopted by the district court does it say
that the three co-conspirators solely agreed to a change-in-
immigration application through a Form I-130 and a Form I-485.
Instead, the record amply supports the contention that Ngige,
Mbugua, and Frank agreed more generally to facilitate a sham
marriage in order to make Ngige eligible for lawful residency.
Ngige's status as a spouse of a citizen triggered her eligibility
to file a Form I-360 VAWA-based petition for a change in status.
See 8 U.S.C. § 1229b(b)(2)(A)(i). Thus, her VAWA petition, along
with the psychological evaluation submitted in support, was merely
a shift in tactics to achieve the same basic goal: to capitalize on
a sham marriage in order to achieve a change in immigration status.
Cf. Stewart, 744 F.3d at 23 n.5 ("[J]ust because a conspiratorial
objective could have been achieved via different means does not
suggest that the means selected were not in furtherance of the
conspiracy."); United States v. Sarantos, 455 F.2d 877 , 883 (2d
Cir. 1972) (in a marriage fraud case, rejecting argument that the
scope of the conspiracy was limited to the filing of the initial
visa petition and upholding conviction where defendant knew the
objective of the conspiracy was to achieve permanent residency for
co-conspirator, even though "he may not have been familiar with
every step that would be taken by his co-conspirators to achieve
. . . [the conspiracy's] objective").
As an alternative ground for reversal, Ngige argues that
the conspiracy terminated when Frank withdrew in 2005, and thus the
conspiracy had ended by the time she filed the psychological report
in August 2007. But nothing in the record supports the contention
that the third co-conspirator, Mbugua, had ever withdrawn his
involvement. An inactive co-conspirator is "'presumed to be a
continuing member'" of an ongoing conspiracy unless the defendant
has established that co-conspirator's withdrawal. United States v.
Pizarro-Berríos, 448 F.3d 1 , 10 (1st Cir. 2006) (quoting United
States v. Robinson, 390 F.3d 853 , 882 (6th Cir. 2004)). Although
the stipulations are silent as to Mbugua's role in the conspiracy
after Ngige paid him for his services, the "[m]ere cessation of
activity in furtherance of the conspiracy does not constitute
withdrawal." United States v. Ciresi, 697 F.3d 19 , 27 (1st Cir.
2012) (alteration in original) (citation omitted); see also Smith
v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 714, 720 (2013) ("Passive
nonparticipation in the continuing scheme is not enough to sever
the meeting of minds that constitutes the conspiracy.").
Finally, Ngige contends that the conspiracy was no longer
ongoing in August 2007 because she herself withdrew from the
conspiracy in January 2006, when she filed for divorce.
"Withdrawal is a demanding defense requiring affirmative evidence
of an effort to defeat or disavow [the conspiracy] . . . ." United
States v. Potter, 463 F.3d 9 , 20 (1st Cir. 2006); see also Ciresi,
697 F.3d at 27 (describing the standard for withdrawal as "'strict'
and not easily met" (quoting United States v. Piper, 298 F.3d 47 ,
53 (1st Cir. 2002))). It is arguably true that when she filed for
divorce in January 2006, Ngige had given up on convincing Frank to
continue supporting her Form I-130/Form I-485 petition. But later
that same year she utilized her status as the spouse of a U.S.
citizen to file a VAWA-based Form I-360 to achieve a change in her
immigration status, and the following year, she submitted the
psychological evaluation to buttress that petition. Cf. Stewart,
744 F.3d at 24 (holding that rescinding one type of change-of-
immigration-status petition does not constitute abandonment of the
conspiracy). While Ngige took steps to dissolve the marriage, she
continued to submit false statements to USCIS about her
relationship with Frank in order to achieve the ultimate goal of a
change in her immigration status. Nothing in the record supports
Ngige's contention that she withdrew from the conspiracy; to the
contrary, the record supports the conclusion that she continued to
take affirmative steps to achieve the conspiracy's objective. Cf.
Upton, 559 F.3d at 10 ("A conspiracy endures as long as the co-
conspirators endeavor to attain the 'central criminal purposes' of
the conspiracy." (quoting Grunewald, 353 U.S. at 401)).
In sum, we conclude that the record amply supports the
district court's guilty verdict.
For the foregoing reasons, we affirm Ngige's conviction.