ELLINGTON, Conn. (AP) — Alex Kelly gained international infamy as the "preppy rapist" two decades ago while living an adrenaline-fueled life as a jet-set fugitive in Europe — skiing, hang gliding and mountain climbing before surrendering to face rape charges in Connecticut.
Today, the ex-convict indulges his love of thrills as a skydiving instructor.
The man who spent eight years on the lam, living off money the FBI said came from his wealthy parents, has made a post-prison career out of jumping from planes, often with customers strapped to his body. He recently bought a plane and is preparing to open his own Connecticut-based parachuting business.
His new life has not been without turbulence. He was forced out of a skydiving company that employed him until last year, when a pilot accused Kelly of threatening to beat him up. Other members complained Kelly screamed at them and made lewd sexual comments.
Kelly, now 48, declined interview requests for this article. But he did offer a reference who said Kelly is a professional who worked with her children at the skydiving company and has been a role model for her son.
"He has done everything in his power to turn his life around," said Mindy Machalick, a friend. "If ever there was an individual that deserves a positive write-up, it's Alex Kelly."
Kelly was a high school wrestling star in Darien, Connecticut, in 1986 when he was accused of two rapes. In 1987, as his trial was about to start, he fled to Europe.
His father, Joe Kelly, owned a plumbing company and also made money through real estate investments. A 1994 police raid on the family's Darien home produced photographs and letters that showed they were aiding their son. The family did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Alex Kelly surrendered in Switzerland in 1995, returning as a staple of tabloids and an example of suburban entitlement.
He was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to 16 years in prison for the rape of a 16-year-old girl and later pleaded no contest to raping a 17-year-old girl four days after the first incident. He was released from prison in 2007, with credit for good behavior, and has not been arrested since.
In 2008, he began taking classes at Connecticut Parachutists Inc., in Ellington, where he became an instructor. Company officials noticed the monitoring device he was still wearing on his ankle, and Kelly, who is registered as a sex offender, explained his past. The company hired him.
"We felt he had done the crime and done the time," said Brian Knight, treasurer of the club that runs the company.
For ex-convicts like Kelly with access to wealth, New York University law professor Tony Thompson said, it is much easier to build a life after prison compared with those of lesser means. Thompson, who studies re-entry issues, said Kelly's trajectory is particularly unusual given that many states bar people convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude from obtaining certain professional licenses.
"The crime of rape is pretty high up on the ladder of moral turpitude crimes," he said. "In the state of New York, until a few years ago, if you had a felony conviction, you couldn't become a barber."
That was not an issue for Kelly, who climbed the ranks and eventually became the club's president and then drop zone manager, the highest paid position, in charge of running the business. He became an expert skydiver with several instructor ratings and a master's license for parachuting. The state and Federal Aviation Administration do not prohibit people with criminal records from operating skydiving schools.
Kelly often did tandem jumps with male customers but, given his past, had a self-imposed restriction against jumping with women. He instead served as a videographer on those jumps, company officials said.
His identity has come as a shock to some customers.
Holly Tanneyhill of Agawam, Massachusetts, said Kelly was funny and engaging when he served as videographer on her jump, but she feels she should have been told he is a convicted rapist.
"I would never have chosen to go up in an airplane with him," she said.
While club officials said Kelly had good business savvy and brought in new customers and members, several officials said in interviews that the relationship soured last year because of what they described as erratic behavior. They said Kelly punched one skydiver who tried to adjust Kelly's rig, and another alleged Kelly grabbed his genitals from behind. The club asked for Kelly's resignation.
In the case of the pilot, Kelly was accused of threatening to pull him from the cockpit and pummel him in a disagreement over whether the pilot had authorization to use the club's airplane, according to Labor Department documents obtained by The Associated Press under a Freedom of Information request.
"Lots of people have been to jail; lots of people have done bad things," said Hollie Reno, who helped teach Kelly to skydive and later worked with him as an instructor. "Today, if they're different, I evaluate them as they are. But, he has no regard for anyone else."
Machalick, Kelly's friend, said the friction with Connecticut Parachutists' board was related to Kelly's management style and his insistence that safety be a top priority.
Since parting ways with the club, Kelly has been pursuing his own business. He filed paperwork this spring establishing Freefall Aviation LLC and Para-Lease LLC, listing his parents' home in Darien as the base of operations. FAA records show Kelly also recently bought a Cessna 182 airplane.
Officials at Connecticut Parachutists Inc. say he also is trying to buy Ellington Airport, which would give him control over the skydiving club's lease. Larry Durocher, part of the airport's current ownership group, said the airport is for sale with an asking price of $2.9 million and he has been speaking to several potential buyers.
This story has been corrected to show the last name of Kelly's friend is Machalick, not Mahalic.