The Metamora couple whose dogs killed a jogger last week are in the U.S. illegally and were facing imminent deportation at the time of the attack.
Valbona Lucaj, 44, got into the country from Albania in January 1997 after bribing an immigration officer into granting her asylum, according to federal court filings. Her Italian husband, Sebastiano Quagliata, 45, arrived a month earlier as a tourist and never left.
The two are potentially facing involuntary manslaughter charges after their Cane Corso dogs attacked and killed Craig Sytsma, 46, of Livonia on July 23 as he jogged past their home on a rural Metamora Township road. Lapeer County prosecutors are expected to announce a decision on criminal charges this week. It is unclear what, if any impact, their citizenship status will have on possible prosecution.
The couple have been fighting deportation for years since immigration officials discovered that Lucaj had paid $3,000 to an immigration officer in New York to grant her asylum. That asylum was then granted to Quagliata because he was her spouse.
But on March 31 of this year, U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen refused to stop their deportation, siding with immigration officials who said that Lucaj “lacked good moral character arising out of fraud in obtaining asylum.”
The pair repeatedly lied to immigration officials as they sought asylum and then naturalization, according to the files.
Lucaj applied for asylum in New York in May 1997, but the immigration officer who interviewed her found “a number of inconsistent statements” about her alleged persecution in Albania on religious grounds and declined to recommend asylum. But an administrator in the office, John Shandorf, overruled the officer.
In 1998, FBI agents arrested Shandorf and another man, Luigi Berishaj, on bribery and conspiracy charges, alleging the two schemed to grant 20 Albanian refugees asylum in exchange for bribes ranging from $2,000 to $3,000. Berishaj identified Lucaj as one of those who paid a bribe.
Immigration officials notified the pair in 2005 that they intended to terminate their asylum status and deport them. Lucaj traveled from Michigan to Chicago to appeal the decision.
According to court filings, she claimed she had never met Berishaj and that a woman whose name she could not recall helped her apply for asylum. But officials, in reviewing her file, found that “documents were clearly altered” and that her story was not credible.
During interviews with immigration officials, Lucaj and Quagliata insisted that they had been jailed while in Albania because of their religious beliefs. The two are Catholic. But Lucaj, out of the presence of her husband, told investigators he had been arrested on a train. Quagliata said his arrest took place on a boat.
Regarding Quagliata’s statement, immigration officials noted “that such life-changing events, such as being jailed in a foreign country, would have remained an event you would have remembered.”
Khaalid Walls, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Wednesday that officials were reviewing their files.
Lucaj works for an insurance company, and Quagliata as a professional house painter, according to court documents. The pair lived in Sterling Heights, Warren and Macomb Township before buying the Metamora house in 2011 for $150,000. The four-bedroom home sits on 7 acres.
It was from that property, investigators said, that the two Cane Corsos — large dogs similar in size to bullmastiffs — charged Sytsma as he jogged after work, mauling him to death as he struggled with them in a ditch by the side of the road.
On Friday, Lapeer County prosecutors will ask a district court judge to order the destruction of two dogs, along with a third adult dog found at the home and seven puppies that are products of the dogs that attacked
About 140 miles away, Sytsma’s family will celebrate his life and mourn his death at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Jenison, Mich.