Irish Echo

'The Chef' ponders a lonely Christmas

By Ray O'Hanlon

Larry Zaitschek fears the possible consequences of going to Belfast. So his Belfast-based lawyers flew to meet him in New York last week. Solicitors Kevin Winters and Paddy Murray, along with barrister Neil Fox, are the new legal team representing Larry Jon Zaitschek -- "Larry the Chef" to those familiar with a case that is about to mark its third yuletide but remains a long way from being fully unwrapped.

As cases go, however, this one is more of a legal standoff than a court proceeding.

Zaitschek, a U.S. citizen, faces potential extradition to Northern Ireland over his alleged role in the St. Patrick's Day 2002 break-in at the Castlereagh police facility, where he had worked as a chef.

But close to three years after the incident, no papers have been served on the New Yorker.

Ordinarily, that might be reassuring to an individual facing forced departure from native soil. But Larry the Chef has been stewing. He sees himself caught in a Catch-22 situation, one that has the potential to drag on for years.

Zaitschek denies any role in the Castlereagh affair. But if you ask him about the potential extradition warrant winging his way from Belfast, he will give it short order.

His plea of innocence to the Castlereagh caper runs second to his desire for parental access to his 6-year-old son, Pearse.

Zaitschek, who lives in Manhattan, has not been in contact with Pearse for over a year. And that was just a late night phone call.

Zaitschek doesn't know anything of Pearse's whereabouts other than that he is living with his mother, Zaitschek's ex-wife, somewhere in the Northern Ireland version of America's witness protection program.

Zaitschek quietly visited Northern Ireland in January of this year but was unable to locate his son.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland didn't spot Zaitschek, this despite a thick police dossier on the man currently in the possession of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Belfast and a case that is, according to that office, still under "active consideration."

Back in New York, Zaitschek doesn't have to hide. At one point he was under FBI surveillance, but he believes that has eased off in recent months.

Zaitschek and his legal team share the view that his case might have faded away if a political deal had been reached in Northern Ireland last week. But the failure to nail down a working agreement has thrown that theory out of the window. They also agree that another trip to Northern Ireland would likely risk immediate arrest and charges to follow.

Pearse, meanwhile, recently celebrated his sixth birthday. Zaitschek was able to ship over a present, ironically via the PSNI. But that was it. There was no happy birthday phone call from dad. And the gift arrived late.

The last time father and son spoke was Nov. 16, 2003.

"This can't go on indefinitely. What are they doing to my child?" Zaitschek said.

It is this all too evident despair on the part of the man that prompted his newly acquired lawyers to fly the Atlantic last week and meet him for the first time.

"We are seeking clarification as to what they intend to do," Winters said. "Larry needs to know what will happen to him if he returns to Northern Ireland to see his child."

Winters said he was especially concerned about his client's position should the revised U.S.-UK extradition treaty become law. The treaty was not passed by the Senate before the 108th Congress adjourned last week, but it will come before the 109th when it convenes Jan. 4.

Zaitschek was sitting right in the crosshairs of the treaty, Winters said.

"He is the number one candidate to be affected by it," he said.

Winters said that there had been no move to extradite his client under the existing treaty. This, he said, was either due to political sensitivities behind the case or a lack of real evidence.

"But with this new treaty, they could just come and lift him," barrister Neil Fox said.

Solicitor Paddy Murray said it was time to up the ante on their client's behalf.

For Zaitschek, the most immediate concern is his son and the fact that another Christmas looks set to pass without him seeing, or even speaking, to Pearse, who is a U.S. citizen.

"There are questions over the status of this so-called protection program," he said. "It should be challenged."

Zaitschek, meanwhile, has bought Christmas gifts for his son. Making sure they get to Pearse will be the next task for his legal team. All three, in the spirit of the season, said they were ready and willing to play the role of the wise men.

The three lawyers duly flew back to Belfast last weekend, their dry legal papers augmented by the kind of things that will bring joy to a 6-year-old boy.

Larry Zaitschek, meanwhile, remained in New York hoping that the gifts would reach his son by Christmas Day.

This story appeared in the issue of December 15-21, 2004

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