Ridgway rallies around Armenians

Denver Post, CO
Aug 20 2004

Ridgway rallies around Armenians

By Nancy Lofholm
Denver Post Staff Writer

Post / Shaun Stanley
Members of the Sargsyan family speak about their immigration status
in their Ridgway apartment. From left, 18-year-old Hayk; 20-year-old
Gevorg, a CU student; family matriarch Susan, 52; 30-year-old Nvart
Idinyan; 62-year-old Ruben; and youngest daughter Meri, 27. Ruben and
Meri are slated to be deported by the end of September.

Ridgway – In the bureaucratic view of the Department of Homeland
Security, the six despondent Armenians crowded together on a
rose-colored couch in this small Western Slope town have no right to
be here.

They have no passports, no green cards and no valid visas. And they
have no right to stay in the United States.

But in the eyes of residents of this one-stoplight town now working
to protect the Sargsyans from deportation, they are hardworking,
principled, good-hearted assets to the community and to America.

“To me, they are better citizens than most of us citizens,” said Rob
Hunter, minister at Ridgway Community Church.

By the end of September, two members of the family – patriarch Ruben
and youngest daughter Meri – are due to be deported to Armenia, where
they say they face persecution and possibly death at the hands of the
Russian mafia. They are blamed in Armenia for a scam they say was
carried out by a former family friend.

The remaining family members may face the same fate, but they have
more time to appeal. Even if they win, however, a family bound
tightly by tragedy over the past decade will be split apart.

“It’s like life stopped,” said son Gevorg, a 20-year-old student at
the University of Colorado.

The saga that landed the Sargsyans in western Colorado and in
immigration limbo began in 1994 when Nvart Sargsyan met an American
in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. She was 19 and, by her own
admission, naive.

>From there, the details of the Sargsyan’s story are impossible to
verify, but they and others have sworn to them in immigration
proceedings as they battled U.S. efforts to deport them:

Vaughn Huckfeldt, 53, was a professor at the American University of
Armenia who also claimed to be a well-to-do minister with a nice home
in Colorado. He wore a clerical collar and a large cross. He asked
Nvart to marry him on their third date.

Huckfeldt began telling other Armenians that he could obtain visas
for them to go to the United States, the Sargsyans said. He collected
more than $1,000 each from 10 to 15 families, they said, then left
the country, taking along an 8- months-pregnant Nvart.

Back in Armenia, people who had given Huckfeldt money were hounding
Nvart’s family, accusing them of being part of a scam and demanding
they pay the money back. Eventually, some of them hired Russian
mobsters to threaten the Sargsyans, who sold nearly everything they
had to try and repay the money they say Huckfeldt took from their

Finally, the Sargsyans said, Huckfeldt provided them with visas to
join Nvart in the U.S. They were student visas, but the family
members were unaware that they were required to attend school here –
not work.

With the support of her family, Nvart filed for divorce, claiming
that Huckfeldt had abused her throughout the marriage. Several people
in town supported her claim, but Huckfeldt was never convicted of a

Huckfeldt responded by writing to immigration authorities, claiming
the family was in the country fraudulently on student visas.

Attempts to locate Huckfeldt through relatives, ex- wives and former
associates were unsuccessful. An ex- wife said he is living in

Former Ridgway Marshal Sherm Williams said he had fielded several
complaints over the years about Huckfeldt, ranging from unpaid loans
to bad-check allegations. But while Huckfeldt lost an array of
small-claims suits over the years, the former professor has not been
convicted of a crime in town.

Meanwhile, the Sargsyans have spent thousands on lawyers and court
fees – money the whole family earned doing jobs few others wanted or
could handle.

“They are some of the hardest working, finest people I have ever
known,” said Deadra Paxton, a waitress who has been acquainted with
the family since they came to Ridgway.

Friends in Ouray County didn’t know how dire the Sargsyans’ situation
was until family matriarch Susan recently broke down as she informed
Ridgway businessman Pete Whiskeman she wouldn’t be able to clean for
him anymore.

Whiskeman and friend Kelvin Kent jumped into action, and a town
joined them. In just one day, townspeople donated $1,500 to a fund
for a family that has never asked for handouts throughout their

“Unfortunately, I think what we have here is a prime example of
overzealous and work- burdened federal judges operating under
extremely harsh and generalized rules of homeland security,” Kent

As they count down the family’s dwindling days together, the
Sargsyans say they still have a hard time believing that in America
there won’t be justice. They haven’t completely given up on that

“We are waiting for a miracle,” said Gevorg, “like we were waiting
for a miracle in Armenia.”