Ex-IRA prison escaper held in Texas prison
By Matt O'Brien
Contra Costa Times
Article Launched: 08/11/2008 07:22:15 PM PDT

OAKLAND — When immigration agents pulled over Pol Brennan at a rural South Texas checkpoint earlier this year, they learned that the 55-year-old Oakland carpenter was an Irish immigrant with an expired work permit.

Then they began reviewing his record — an explosives conviction, a Belfast prison break — and arrested the former member of the Irish Republican Army, setting into motion deportation proceedings that could ship him back to a country he escaped 25 years ago.

A longtime East Bay resident, Brennan had begun to grow accustomed to life beyond "The Troubles" — the Northern Ireland conflict that had consumed much of his life. But in January, his Irish past collided with heightened American immigration enforcement.

"When we went to that checkpoint, he tripped a whole bunch of wires that really had nothing to do with Ireland and everything to do with the way most immigrants are suffering now," said Joanna Volz, Brennan's American wife of almost 20 years.

The couple was near the end of a trip visiting friends and family in Texas when they were stopped Jan. 27 at a highway checkpoint in Sarita, about 100 miles north of the Mexico border.

Brennan is fighting his deportation and has been detained in Texas and New Mexico prisons since his January arrest. He is expected to remain in Texas at least until his next hearing, in September, Volz said.

Convicted in 1977 of carrying an Irish Republican Army
bomb that police believe was meant for a terrorist attack on a Belfast store, Brennan was serving a 16-year term at Maze Prison when he and 37 others escaped the maximum security facility near Belfast in a hail of gunfire in September 1983.

He made his way to the Bay Area, living and working under an assumed name and meeting Volz, his future wife, at an Irish bar in San Francisco. Volz said she didn't know about Brennan's past until she read a magazine story that featured two Northern Ireland families — one unionist, one nationalist. The nationalist family, Brennan told her, was his.

"We had to assess the situation," Volz said. "We had already fallen in love at that point. It's just one of those things that happen."

The FBI eventually caught up with Brennan, arresting him in Berkeley in 1993.

As authorities in British-ruled Northern Ireland sought to extradite Brennan and other IRA escapees to serve the time they had avoided, Brennan spent another six years at Alameda County's Santa Rita and Oakland jails. He also applied for political asylum and, with permission from authorities, returned to carpentry work after he was released on bail.

The situation changed for Brennan following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process that brought promises from both sides to forgive past aggressions. In 2000, Northern Ireland officials announced they would no longer seek to extradite Brennan and two other Bay Area escapees.

"Hopefully, it will pan out," Brennan told the Times in October 2000. "As far as we are concerned, it's an end of an era for us. We can now get on with our lives."

Brennan did get on with his life, living in Berkeley and more recently the Fruitvale district of Oakland.

"After the whole Good Friday Agreement, I was under the impression that he was free," said friend and carpenter Randy Elliott of Berkeley. "He had a job. He worked for a landscape architect and he was happily employed."

Elliott said Brennan was devoted to his whippet dogs and an astronomy hobby, frequently taking his telescope to Mount Diablo to look at constellations. He had helped raise Volz's daughter after she spent much of her young life in local jails.

But two criminal cases have contributed to his ongoing detention. In the early 1990s, he illegally bought a gun under an alias. In 2006, he faced a misdemeanor charge for a physical fight with a contractor.

Volz, who has moved to Texas while her husband remains jailed there, said her family cooperated with local authorities and had not been living in hiding.

"He's been getting work permits in different intervals for years now," she said. "I didn't realize his work permit had expired. We had sort of stopped thinking like fugitives."

Adelina Pruneda, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Antonio, confirmed that the agency arrested Brennan for violating immigration law but declined to discuss the case because it is in immigration courts.

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