By Ray O’Hanlon
They say they worked for no pay in Las Vegas, were falsely accused by their employer of being terrorists and thrown into jail.
Now James Murray and Ruth Gould, an engaged couple from Belfast, face deportation from the U.S.
And this, they say, despite the fact that their former employer, assigned to them under the Walsh Visa program, is now in jail himself and has an extensive criminal history stretching beyond the borders of Nevada.
That employer, Steve Smith of Las Vegas Airsports, is currently in prison, facing sentencing next month on a charge arising from an attempt to kidnap a prostitute.
And law enforcement officials in Las Vegas have indicated to the Echo that further charges may be pending against Smith, a man who, according to one prosecutor, “appears to have a significant criminal history.”
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How Murray and Gould ended up in their present predicament would give Murphy’s Law a close run in the race for ultimate absurdity.
But what immediately lies ahead for the Belfast pair is a deportation hearing on May 28 in a Las Vegas immigration court.
As far as the administrators of the Walsh Visa jobs program are concerned, Murray and Gould have violated the employment terms of what is more formally called the Irish Peace Process Cultural and Training Program.
Murray and Gould counter that they were never properly employed by Smith and were never paid a dime. They also contend that repeated efforts to explain their predicament to the visa program administrators, Logicon, a division of Northrop Grumman, fell on deaf ears.
Murray and Gould’s American drama started well enough. As “category two” participants in the visa program, the couple were a little older and had more work experienced than “category one” participants.
Murray, who is 32, and Gould, 27, both had jobs in their native Belfast. They also can claim near poster child status for the peace process and its Walsh Visa offshoot.
Murray is Catholic and Gould Protestant and they want to get married. They arrived in the U.S. early last August and began working for a company in North Carolina called Kitty Hawk Kites.
Murray wanted to train as a hang gliding instructor. Gould worked in the company’s reservation office.
According to a written testimony from H. Bruce Weaver, manager of the company’s hang gliding school, both performed “exceptionally” during their period of employment.
The decision to leave the company, Murray said, resulted from the fact that the 2001 hang gliding season on the North Carolina coast ended early, in large part due to the downturn in travel post-Sept. 11.
Murray found potential new employment on the internet in the form of the Nevada company Las Vegas Airsports.
While changing jobs within the Walsh Visa program is not easy, it is possible. According to Murray, he and Gould obtained clearance from Logicon to travel to Los Vegas to take up jobs with Las Vegas Airsports.
They did so in late September with the understanding that their new employer had been checked out and vetted by Virginia-based Logicon, which acts as program administrator for the U.S. State Department.
Murray wanted to train as an instructor in boat-towed hang gliding. A job offer letter from Steve Smith, managing director of LVA, promised a starting salary of $8.50 an hour “plus incentives and bonus structure.” The letter concluded by stating that the company wanted Murray to begin work on Oct. 22.
All seemed well at first, although payment soon came in the form of promises rather than hard cash.
Still, Murray and Gould had some money of their own to ease their trans-Atlantic transition and also had a line of credit with Murray’s bank account in Belfast. Money, though not abundant, was not an immediate concern.
In time, it would become such, but of even greater concern to Murray and Gould was the slowly unfolding personality of their employer.
By the beginning of the new year, Murray and Gould were alarmed. At this point Murray said he complained to Logicon about lack of payment from Smith.
Smith, according to Murray, also seemed to be obsessed with sex and prostitutes and, according to Murray, began making sexual advances toward both him and Gould.
Smith, again according to Murray, began hinting at having other names in a series of rambling talks that Murray believes may have been drug-induced.
The bottom fell out of the relationship when, according to Murray, Smith was busted for shoplifting.
“I asked Logicon again if they had okayed Smith as an employer and they said yes,” Murray said.
By February, the situation reached its nadir. Seemingly acting on a tip-off, one that Murray and Gould believe came from Smith, the Belfast couple were arrested by agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“Someone had informed on us, claiming we were terrorists planning an attack on the U.S.,” Murray said.
The couple spent a week in jail before being released on bail. Not surprisingly, charges of terrorism were never pressed. But that was not the end of the couple’s troubles.
Murray said that Smith had also written a letter to Logicon claiming that he and Gould had never worked for Las Vegas Airsports.
In identical April 16 letters to Murray and Gould from Northrop Grumman Information Technology, Logicon’s corporate parent, Frederick R. Welch, the Walsh Visa program manager for NGIT, acknowledged receipt of the Smith letter.
“On October 16, 2001, we issued you a certification letter, which designated Las Vegas Airsports as your Department of State approved employer. We learned from this employer that you had not in fact ever worked for Los Vegas Airsports,” Welch wrote.
“We requested that you provide evidence of your employment with Las Vegas Airsports by forwarding to us copies of your pay statements. To date, we have not received these from you, so we must conclude that you have never worked for this organization.”
He also accused Murray and Gould of misrepresenting their employment situation to NGIT staff on a number of occasions.
The letters informed the couple that under the regulations of the Irish Peace Process Cultural and Training Program, they were terminated from the program because they had remained unemployed for 30 or more days.
Welch’s letter concluded: “We, together with the Department of State, have considered your oral request for reinstatement and have determined that since you failed to show for work beginning sometime between October and the end of December 2001, and made misrepresentations to us regarding your training situation, we must deny your request for reinstatement to the Irish Peace Process Cultural and Training Program. We have informed the Immigration and Naturalization Service of our actions.”
According to his secretary, Welch was traveling in Northern Ireland and unavailable for comment as the Echo went to press Tuesday.
While the letters from NGIT accuse Murray and Gould of making misrepresentations with regard to their employment with their “State Department approved employer,” Murray and Gould say that they did in fact work for Smith.
But the nature of the employment was rather different to what they had expected.
At various points the couple said they cleaned out Smith’s garage and his Jeep Cherokee, steam-cleaned the carpets in his home and scrubbed his tile floors.
Meanwhile, the focus of this bizarre tale has turned this week on Smith himself, a man who, according to Deputy District Attorney Bernard Zadrowski of the Clark County DA’s office, has a “number of aliases, birth dates and social security numbers.”
Zadrowski said that it appears Smith “has a significant criminal history.”
He said that his office has become aware of Smith having “numerous arrests and convictions in other jurisdictions.”
Sergeant Nigel Cervantes of the Las Vegas Police Department confirmed that Smith was the subject of an ongoing investigation.
“He’s not a nice guy,” Cervantes said.
According to Zadrowski, Smith’s incarceration followed his picking up of a prostitute on Las Vegas’s Boulder Highway.
At one point, Smith was driving the woman along a desert road. Threats of physical harm were made by Smith and a struggle ensued. The woman jumped from the car and, with Smith in pursuit, reached a house and safety.
The woman did not, however, turn up for a couple of vital court hearings, although her story had checked out with investigators.
As a result, the kidnapping charge against Smith was lowered to a single count of Conspiracy to Commit Coercion, which carries a one-year sentence. Smith has pleaded guilty and will be sentenced next month.
Murray and Gould, meanwhile, hope that the now unfolding past of their erstwhile “employer” will help their dire visa situation.
A State Department spokesman offered only a little comfort, telling the Echo that the two would be welcome to reapply for the Walsh Visa program through their employers in Belfast. But first they would have to return to Northern Ireland.
Murray and Gould want to stay in the Las Vegas, where they would appear to be potential witnesses in the deepening investigation into the man who called himself Steve Smith.