Customers at O'Malley's pub in Seal Beach knew Sean Kelly as the burly bartender with a brogue who helped them forget their troubles by belting out wry Celtic ballads and serving up pints of Guinness.
But U.S. authorities charged at a hearing Tuesday that it was Kelly himself who hoped to forget about a troubled past in Northern Ireland, a past that caught up with him last month when U.S. border and immigration agents boarded his plane at LAX and ordered him jailed without bail.
Kelly immigrated to the U.S. in 1999, after serving eight years in Northern Ireland's notorious "Maze" prison. He had been convicted of aiding and abetting the killing of two English soldiers and sentenced to life imprisonment. He eventually was freed under a peace accord between Ireland and England. But he was not pardoned, and his conviction remained on the books.
Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Kelly married and landed work at O'Malley's, a popular Main Street bar blocks from the beach. Kelly, patrons say, endeared himself to customers and employers with his ability to talk to people and for organizing regular trips to see the Dodgers and Lakers.
All of that came to an end on Feb. 25. Kelly, 35, was returning home from a visit to Northern Ireland for the christening of his nephew, where he was named godfather. As he waited to disembark from his airplane, he was met by U.S. authorities who took him into custody. Border and immigration officials said they had been alerted to his criminal past as he was leaving Ireland.
Although U.S. authorities say his past conviction escaped notice when he first arrived in the U.S., new international databases and more thorough customs screenings since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks revealed his history, and border agents flagged his entry into the U.S.
"There have been a lot of changes since he entered the country, and we've beefed up background checks," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Screening is much more exhaustive now."
Now, Kelly is fighting deportation and separation from his wife and 3-year-old son, saying that he was the victim of political persecution in his homeland and that he should remain in America.
At Tuesday's deportation hearing at a detention facility on Terminal Island, Kelly sat slumped in his chair. He blew a kiss to his wife, Geraldine Kelly, and ran a hand over his hair, which had been sheared close to the scalp.
"They shaved my hair off," he said to his wife.
"You look good," she replied.
"Now we can see more of your face," a friend added.
Geraldine Kelly, who had tears in her eyes after the hearing, declined to talk to reporters.
Kelly was one of hundreds of people who were arrested in 1989, after the executions of two undercover British soldiers the year before. The corporals, Derek Wood and David Howes, had been mobbed at the Belfast funeral of an Irish Republican Army member. They were blocked in traffic, dragged from their car, beaten and later shot to death in Casement Park.
Most of those arrested were released or acquitted. But Kelly and two others were convicted of kidnapping, causing "grievous bodily harm" and aiding and abetting the murders.
Prosecutors said videotapes and photographs showed Kelly helping take one of the soldiers to Casement. A judge also reasoned that the three had foreseen that the events might end in murder.
The convictions were criticized by the group Human Rights Watch, which reviewed the case and deemed the video footage to be of poor quality.
"Their convictions were the result of inadequate or faulty legal procedures," the group's report said, which included trials without juries, "violation of the right to remain silent ... and confused application of the doctrine of common purpose."
Kelly and his lawyers argued Tuesday that he had nothing to do with the deaths -- that the conviction had been a political move made during the civil strife that split the country in two, pitted Catholics against Protestants and led to many deaths on both sides.
"We're not trying to make a political statement," said Kelly's lawyer, Jim Byrne. "We're just trying to prove that a man who made a life for himself here ... can continue to live in the U.S."
U.S. immigration authorities say that he is simply a convicted felon whose past disqualifies him from residence here and that he is suspected of falsifying information about his past on his green card application.
"Mr. Kelly is charged with being inadmissible to the U.S. because of his conviction for a crime of moral turpitude," Kice said. "We're taking a close look at the application to see how forthright he was about his criminal past."
Kelly's lawyers insist that their client did not falsify his green card application, and that he told officials that he had spent time in his homeland's prison.
The bartender's customers and friends say they were not aware of his past and that he never discussed it.
They say, however, that the man they know is not a criminal.