WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A former Kansas soldier will spend 10 months in federal prison for entering into a sham marriage so he could get additional military benefits and his Jamaican bride could become a legal immigrant, a federal judge ruled Monday.
In a rare move, U.S. District Judge Monti Belot rejected the prosecution's request for leniency for Joshua Priest, saying it was not justified in this case. The former Fort Riley private pleaded guilty in July to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and wire fraud, and testified against his wife, Shannakay Hunter.
"The fact you came in and cooperated is fine, but it doesn't excuse what you did," Belot told the crestfallen defendant during the sentencing hearing.
Belot also ordered Priest to pay nearly $30,000 in restitution for the fraudulently obtained housing and subsistence benefits given married soldiers.
"The worst part of it, Mr. Priest, is that you were a member of our armed forces," Belot said.
The judge said Priest had a "higher responsibility" than others since he had taken an oath to serve the country. He said the former soldier violated that oath.
Testimony at Hunter's trial pointed out that Priest, who earned about $33,000 a year as a soldier, didn't feel he was making enough money and decided to cheat the government. Hunter was convicted in August of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and lying to the government. She will be sentenced Nov. 26.
Priest testified at his wife's trial that the couple had not personally met until she came to Kansas to get married, telling jurors that they never had sex or lived together.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson said Priest and his attorney had been helpful from day one and urged the judge to accept the government's sentence recommendation, which was filed under seal before the hearing. Anderson called the suggested punishment the "best course for this defendant who has a bright future otherwise."
The sealed motion that prosecutors filed is the kind that typically asks a judge to grant a shorter sentence than the federal sentencing guidelines in cases where defendants provide substantial assistance to the government in prosecuting others. Prosecutors did not specify at the hearing what sentence they were seeking.
Defense attorney David Freund told the judge that Priest had financial problems and made "a poor decision" but has since enrolled in college in Virginia and understands his obligation to make restitution. Freund asked for Priest to be sentenced to probation.
Priest offered a brief apology before his sentencing.
"I learned my lesson," he told the judge. "I don't plan to do anything like that again."
But Belot disregarded the pleas for leniency, telling Priest the "only benefit" he would get from the government's motion was the chance to voluntarily surrender at the prison and not be taken into immediate custody.