The former owner of a corner market in St. Paul argued before his sentencing on a massive food stamp fraud that his illegal behavior "was the product of stress and psychological instability" attributed to his ex-wife dying in the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in 2007.

Khaffak S. Ansari, 46, of Arden Hills, was sentenced on Tuesday in federal court in St. Paul to three years and five months in prison for making illegal redemptions for cash and ineligible merchandise at the Stryker Avenue Market.

The government contended that Ansari trafficked more than $3 million in food stamp benefits from January 2006 -- well before the bridge collapse -- through October 2010.

Ansari argued that the figure was closer to $1.5 million. Sentencing calls for him to pay $2.4 million in restitution.

According to a law enforcement affidavit filed in the case, the average food stamp redemption for a similarly sized store in Minnesota between 2004 and 2009 was slightly more than $320,000. During that time, Stryker's redemptions were nearly 10 times that.

As an example of an inflated transaction, Ansari swiped one benefits card for $401.12 and provided that person with $200 cash.

In pre-sentencing court filings, the government argued for a four-year prison term for Ansari. The defendant sought as little as three years, pointing out that his ex-wife, Julia Blackhawk, was killed in the bridge collapse three months after their divorce.

"The nature and circumstance of the offense ... was a product of stress and psychological instability after the death of Mr. Ansari's [former wife] in the Highway 35W bridge collapse," his attorney argued in a pre-sentencing document.

Blackhawk, 32, and her car plunged into the Mississippi River as she was heading home to Savage from Aveda Institute in southeast Minneapolis, where she had been studying.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482