A Seal Beach bartender who has charmed patrons with his singing in a thick Irish accent can be deported for his role in the murder of two British soldiers 18 years ago, an immigration appeals board has ruled.
The ruling overturns a 2004 decision by an immigration judge who blocked deportation of Sean O'Cealleagh.
But the ruling, reached Wednesday by the Board of Immigration Appeals in Virginia, does not mean that O'Cealleagh, an Irish citizen, will be booted out of the country any time soon. The case, and the fate of the bartender, now returns to Immigration Judge Rose C. Peters for a second hearing, said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
O'Cealleagh, a 37-year-old Westminster resident, is known as the singing bartender at O'Malley's bar in Seal Beach. He was convicted by a British court in 1990 for aiding and abetting in the killing of two British corporals who were at the funeral of an Irish Republican Army member in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1988. He was not charged with killing the soldiers but facilitating their murders.
He was sentenced to life in prison but was released in 1998 and made his way to the U.S., where he became a permanent resident in 2001. At the time, he disclosed his conviction to U.S. authorities. He is married to a U.S. citizen and has a young son.
In February 2004, O'Cealleagh was detained at Los Angeles International Airport after returning from a trip to Northern Ireland by immigration officers who said he never should have been allowed in the U.S. in the first place because of the conviction and began deportation proceedings.
Two months later, after a four-day trial, Judge Peters rejected the government's efforts to deport O'Cealleagh, ruling that his conviction in a British court was for a "purely political offense." He was released from custody in May 2004 on a $15,000 bond while the government appealed her ruling.
The appeals board overruled Peters in a nine-page decision that said a conviction for a purely political offense would involve "baseless, trumped-up or fabricated charges" and that was not the case in O'Cealleagh's situation. Instead, the board said he was charged with "aiding and abetting" the murder of two soldiers and that the "offense was not fabricated."
"There is no question that the murders of the victims occurred, and there was evidence that [O'Cealleagh] played a role in violently leading the soldiers to the park" where they were killed, said the board's ruling.
But Jim Byrne, O'Cealleagh's attorney, said the appeals board also expressed concern about his client's conviction. The ruling said O'Cealleagh's role in the killing "may not have satisfied the concept of aiding and abetting under United States law."
"This indicates that they had a problem with his conviction in a British court," said Byrne, who maintained O'Cealleagh's innocence.
"We've argued all along it's a purely political offense. He was incarcerated for an offense he didn't commit. There's no doubt that two soldiers were murdered, but the issue is whether the conviction was fabricated," he said.
Byrne said he would prepare for a new hearing before Peters, which has not been scheduled. O'Cealleagh's legal options in the future will be determined by the hearing's outcome, he said.
Kice said immigration officials had not initiated deportation proceedings.
"This is not the last chapter in this case, but it's an important legal victory for us," she said.