'Sentenced to life': Local couples decide to tie the knot on Leap Day

Becky Vargo • Mar 1, 2016 at 10:00 AM

“I now pronounce you sentenced to life.” — That’s what Magistrate Vern Helder said to Grand Haven residents Larry Alexander and Tiara Thomas after performing their wedding ceremony Monday in Ottawa County District Court.

In all fairness, the playful couple had just been posing with plaintiff and defendant placards after the Leap Day event.

“It was her idea,” Alexander smiled when asked why they chose Leap Day as a wedding date. “She just wanted to do something different.”

The Alexanders were one of nine couples Helder was scheduled to marry in the Grand Haven courtroom on Monday. The first couple canceled just minutes before their 9:30 a.m. appointment. The last couple of the day also didn’t show.

“Cold feet?” Helder wondered.

The magistrate proceeded to hold a hearing on a traffic ticket before welcoming the first actual wedding couple of the day — Ronald Barba and Mary Kate Milligan. The 26-year-olds said they met in middle school, but didn’t like each other then.

More photos from Monday’s Leap Day weddings

“He was the mean kid,” Milligan said, laughing. “But he’s completely changed now.”

The couple reconnected a year ago.

“We just randomly crossed paths again,” Barba said. “We went on a tubing trip and I’ve been stuck with her ever since.”

Milligan said they decided to get married on Leap Day “because we thought it was kind of funny.”

The bride said they wouldn’t forgo anniversary celebrations in the off years just because the day doesn’t exist.

“We will probably celebrate our anniversary the day before,” she said.

Alexander and Thomas brought a large group of festively dressed family and friends to their wedding. They were planning to host a ’50s-themed reception at a Muskegon bowling alley following the ceremony.

Alexander met his bride — who lived in Chicago at the time — through an online service a year and a half ago and they’ve been engaged about seven months.

The groom said Thomas’ intelligence and sense of humor attracted him, as well as the fact that she appreciates his sense of humor.

They now have two sets of twins in their blended family. Miranda and Josh Thomas, 18, attended the event. Their older sister, Bisa, could not be there.

The twins on the Alexander side — Kristen and Rachel, 13 — did not attend. Their siblings — Aaron, 19, and Taylor, 22 — were there to support their father.

Michael Sayers and Tonette Bogner also met online. The Grand Haven couple have been together for more than eight years, so the wedding was more of a formality, they said. Bogner said Leap Day just gave them the incentive to move their relationship to the next step, and that made their mothers — Raymonde Sayers and Irmgard Hower — very happy.

Raymonde Sayers of Shelby, and originally from France, married an American soldier and moved to the United States 50 years ago. Irmgard Hower also married a soldier and moved to the United States from Germany 60 years ago.

The two mothers wiped their eyes and beamed as the couple exchanged their rings and vows.

Bogner said she became interested in Sayers because “he was scowly on his picture.”

“I said, ‘I bet if you smiled you’d be a real handsome guy,’” she said.

Helder said it was a little bit of a surprise to see so many weddings on the schedule.

“It’s not unusual to have a wedding on Monday, but Fridays (when he works in Holland) are the most popular,” he said.

The last two Leap Days didn’t seem to have much of an affect on the number of weddings. On Feb. 29, 2012 — a Wednesday — there were two weddings, he said. On Feb. 29, 2008 — a Friday — he only conducted one wedding ceremony.

Helder said he likes performing wedding ceremonies.

“It’s one of the times where the parties coming into the courthouse are not adversarial,” he said. “It’s usually a joyous event.”

Helder said he performed 320 wedding ceremonies in 2015. Two other magistrates also performed some ceremonies, bringing the total for the year closer to 500, he said.

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