A U.S. Navy veteran freed as part of an Iran prisoner swap last year had a hidden marriage in California, something he did not disclose to Iranian authorities when pursuing a new Iranian wife prior to his 2018 arrest in Tehran.
Michael Ray White, 49, was released last year after being jailed for 20 months in Iran. He had presented himself as a single, unmarried man who went to Iran only to win approval to marry from his Iranian girlfriend, her family and Iranian authorities.
But White’s story is contradicted by previously undisclosed records tracked down by VOA, and by his wife Guadalupe White, who confirmed to VOA that the two were wed under California’s unusual “confidential marriage” law on April 9, 2004.
A subsequent divorce filing was never finalized. Instead, the couple maintained their relationship and lived together, she said, up until Michael White left for Iran in July 2018.
The California law, unique among U.S. states, allows for weddings with no witnesses and protects the official marriage license from disclosure except to the principals.
It is not known whether White’s marital status played a role in his arrest and detention by Iran, although White has said Iran asked him for proof that he was unmarried. Iranian authorities and U.S. officials involved his case declined comment to VOA.
In a July interview with VOA’s Persian language service, White said he was unmarried. Asked by VOA in August to explain older news reports saying he was married, White stuck by his claim of being single, insisting he was not and “never” has been married.
After VOA confirmed his marriage records, White said in a September 20 email: “I stand by my previous statements that I am unmarried.” He has declined further comment.
The discrepancy adds a puzzling twist to White’s entanglement in the long-running tensions between the U.S. and Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
Then-President Donald Trump had called White a “hostage” at the time he was freed in June 2020. In exchange, the U.S. released an Iranian-American doctor who had been convicted of violating U.S. export sanctions on Iran and financial reporting laws.
The swap came five months after the U.S. assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad and a retaliatory Iranian missile strike on U.S. forces in Iraq.
In the July 8 interview with VOA Persian in San Diego, White said his 20-month detention and mistreatment in Iran had cemented a desire to become a vocal advocate for regime change. After his arrest, he was accused by Iran of spying, violating privacy laws and insulting Iran’s supreme leader and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“I'm not just an advocate. I'm one kind of person who likes to take action against those who do harm to me,” White said in the interview, which VOA dubbed into Persian and published on August 17. “My future plans will be hopefully to work with various groups to bring more pressure [on Iran].”
In the interview, White also described how his pursuit of marriage led him to visit Iran, not once but multiple times.
White said he made three trips – in 2014, 2015 and then July 2018 – to woo a woman about 15 years his junior. The woman, Samaneh Abbasi, and he had begun an online relationship in 2012, White said.
White posted several photos of Abbasi on his Instagram page, some showing them together. VOA was unable to find social media profiles or contact information for Abbasi.
White said Abbasi had asked him before his 2015 visit to her home in Mashhad, in northeast Iran, to bring proof that he was single so marriage plans could move ahead.
“So, I brought my tax return, which showed me filing single, unmarried. And I brought a report from a background-check agency which also has a section that shows whether or not there are any marriage records on file anywhere in the U.S. And it didn’t show anything,” he told VOA.
White said Iranian authorities did not accept those documents on his 2015 trip and demanded that he instead provide certification of unmarried status through a Pakistan embassy office that oversees Iranian interests in Washington, D.C.
In August, while preparing an English report on the interview, VOA discovered news stories by U.S. networks ABC and CNN published during White’s captivity that identified a woman named Guadalupe White as his wife.
That prompted follow-up reporting on Michael White’s claim to be unmarried.
In the news reports, Guadalupe White said her husband acted suspiciously before he left their home in Imperial Beach, south of San Diego, in July 2018. Though he claimed it was for a business trip, she said she believed he was off to see an Iranian girlfriend.
Responding to VOA questions about the ABC and CNN reports by email on August 23, Michael White called them “incorrect” and stated: “I’m not married, never have been.”
He also said that during his 2015 visit to Iran, he traveled with Abbasi from Mashhad to Tehran. At the U.S. interests section of the Swiss embassy, he signed an affidavit “stating that I was single, unmarried” and had the document certified, White said.
After Iran rejected it, however, White said the Iranian office in Washington instructed him to provide a California document showing he had no marriage records on file. "I got a document from the state of California and they [the Iranians] certified it,” he wrote.
In fact, White does have marriage records on file.
Although “confidential” marriage licenses themselves are not public under California law, anyone, for a fee, can get a letter verifying whether a confidential license exists.
VOA obtained from San Diego County a letter confirming the existence of a confidential license for Guadalupe Kester, her previous name, and Michael Ray White.
Guadalupe White, 63, also shared with VOA a copy of the original marriage license and photos of her and White, including one from their April 2004 wedding day and two from 2008, when they celebrated graduating from courses at San Diego City College.
Guadalupe White, a Mexican citizen and U.S. permanent resident, told VOA she agreed to marry Michael White after starting a divorce in 2003 with her then-husband. A clerk at San Diego Superior Court confirmed that divorce was finalized on January 11, 2004.
Her new marriage to White soon ran into trouble.
San Diego court dockets show a dissolution request on November 4, 2004, a month after Guadalupe White received a domestic violence restraining order against White.
The protective order was lifted on February 14, 2005, the docket shows, and the dissolution case was closed on July 26, 2005, without being finalized in divorce.
No other records involving the couple could be found in the San Diego court system.
Guadalupe White told VOA that she and White moved to an Imperial Beach apartment in 2007 and lived together until he left for Iran in July 2018. In the year prior, she said she spent several months caring for him when he received chemotherapy for cancer.
She provided photos of Michael White in his hospital room, with food she said she brought, including a cake.
Jonathan Franks, a publicist and volunteer spokesman for Michael White, told VOA that he believes the 2004 confidential marriage was “never a legal one.” Asked for proof, Franks declined to provide any.
Michael White’s mother, Joanne, reached by phone at her home in Arizona, told VOA that her son also had told her that he did not have a legal marriage to Guadalupe White.
A State Department official declined comment, citing privacy reasons.
Mickey Bergman, a senior adviser to former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who helped in the prisoner swap negotiations over White, also declined comment.
“It is not our practice to discuss any details of the personal life of a prisoner, unless it is critical in the effort to release that prisoner,” Bergman said.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Kambiz Tavana contributed from San Diego and Lynn Davis contributed from Washington.