The Caribbean cruise ship docked at Port Canaveral, Fla., that morning, and Patrick and Bernadette Clerkin and their three children awoke tanned and relaxed and ready for their trip home to Maryland.

There was a knock at their cabin door. Patrick Clerkin, owner of a Brandywine roofing company, was about to take a shower, so his wife answered to find three U.S. customs agents.

Politely and almost apologetically, the agents announced that they were there to arrest Patrick Clerkin.

"This must be some kind of mistake," Bernadette Clerkin told herself as the children giggled at seeing their churchgoing father being led away.

It wasn't a mistake, and today, nearly three months later, Clerkin, 41, finds himself in a Florida jail still.

The charge dates back more than two decades to his less-than-glorious years as a hard-drinking teenager, when a police officer in Pensacola, Fla., arrested him for stealing a pair of hubcaps.

A Florida judge sentenced Clerkin, then 19, to three years' probation, the conditions of which included that he pay $363 in court costs and notify his probation officer if he moved.

Clerkin failed on both counts, which triggered a 1984 arrest warrant. Clerkin said he didn't know about that until the customs agents, who routinely review ship passenger lists, arrived at his Disney cruise ship cabin April 29 and charged him with violation of probation.

Escambia County Circuit Court Judge Jan Shackelford sentenced Clerkin last month to nine months in jail. His release date: Thanksgiving Day.

"It's like something came out of the past, from the grave, and wrapped itself around my throat," Clerkin said by telephone from the jail, where he wears an orange jumpsuit and is known as No. 158976.

Since his imprisonment, his roofing business has been inactive, and the family's savings are drying up without the income. The Clerkins say they may not be able to pay their daughter Cassie's $13,000 freshman tuition at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. They also have another daughter, Maggie, 16, and a son, Mike, 12.

"It seems so unfair," Clerkin said. "I understand I did wrong, I should pay a penalty, but the harshness seems so unreal. The state of Florida basically wants to ruin my entire life over something that happened 20 years ago."

Dennis M. Williams, director of the Escambia County jail, has taken notice of Clerkin's case, saying the 1,400-bed facility is already so crowded that he can hardly afford to take another inmate.

"If you were talking about a crime against persons or if you were talking about morality, then I think incarceration would be prudent," Williams said. "But we're talking about two hubcaps."

Florida judges are known for being strict in cases involving probation violations, and Shackelford is no exception, according to lawyers who practice in Escambia County. "She's very tough," said John Dickinson, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted Clerkin's case. "When he walked out of court [in 1981], he should have realized he had a probation officer to report to."

Dickinson said it would be "ethically improper" for him to comment on the terms of Clerkin's sentence.

When told of Williams's remarks, the judge said: "I'm just going to smile." She declined to comment on the case, saying that the time for appeal has not elapsed. In general, though, she said it's not unusual to hear probation violation cases as old as Clerkin's and that she seeks to "treat these people as consistently as possible while recognizing that each case is different."

The judge appears to have sought to ease Clerkin's punishment in several ways. Breaking with her usual practice, the judge allowed Clerkin to post $5,000 bond so he could return home to Maryland for five weeks while he awaited sentencing. She also kept the felony conviction off Clerkin's permanent record.

The judge pronounced the sentence after reviewing more than two dozen letters from Clerkin's friends, neighbors and clients, a campaign Bernadette Clerkin orchestrated from their Brandywine home.

Bernadette Clerkin, who is seeking a pardon for her husband, wrote to the Florida Parole Commission and to Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), whose legal counsel forwarded her letter to aides to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R). So far, no one has replied, though Bernadette Clerkin said she's unwilling to give up, if only because the effort keeps her from becoming distraught.

"At least I'm doing something," she said, sitting at her kitchen counter in their home, a two-story colonial her husband built several years ago on five rolling acres. "My husband doesn't deserve to be in jail. He's not the same person he was when all this happened."

By his own account, Patrick Clerkin's chief interests as a teenager were drinking and fighting. He grew up in Greenbelt, the son of an alcoholic truck driver, he said. He dropped out of school in eighth grade and floated in and out of foster care and detention centers for juvenile delinquents.

When he was 18, Clerkin traveled across the country and ended up in Pensacola, where, he said, he drank heavily and slept on the streets. In need of money, he and another person tried to steal a pair of hubcaps off a Buick but were spotted by a police officer.

After spending two months in jail, Clerkin pleaded no contest to a charge of grand theft and was sentenced to probation. Clerkin said he does not recall being required to check in with a probation officer if he moved.

He returned to Greenbelt, where court records show that his penchant for trouble remained formidable. Over the next two years, he was accused of assault, a charge that was dropped, and with drinking in public. He pleaded guilty to a charge of battery in 1982 and was sentenced to 180 days in jail, all but 20 days of which was suspended.

In 1984, Clerkin moved to Texas for a year with Bernadette and failed to inform Florida authorities of his whereabouts. Clerkin "behaved irresponsibly and obviously has no fear of what may result from his violation of probation," James E. Cummings, a Florida probation officer, wrote in a 1984 recommendation that an arrest warrant be issued.

The next year, the couple married after Bernadette became pregnant with Cassie. While she was drawn to his rugged good looks and his rebellious ways, Bernadette acknowledged that she was not exactly hopeful about their future.

"I married him knowing that I could get a divorce," she said.

With the birth of Cassie, Clerkin said, he gradually became less interested in beer and fighting and more drawn to going to church and studying the Bible. The family joined Grace Brethren Church in Lanham, where Patrick served as an elder. Twice in recent years, he has flown to Haiti on missions to help build a church and a school, he said, and both times he passed through U.S. customs without incident.

Clerkin learned the craft of sheet metal roofing and formed his company in 1994, specializing in repairing and replacing copper- and slate-top roofs in Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria.

With each year, he said, the painful memories and bad habits of his youth seemed to recede, and he rarely, if ever, talked of that period except to rail against the dangers of drinking.

His arrest required that he revisit those troubled years and tell his children details of his past.

At the jail, where wake-up is 4 a.m., he lives with two dozen inmates in a dormlike setting. His daily jobs are to clean the living quarters and to serve food. Sometimes, if only for amusement, he finds himself telling new acquaintances the story of his recent arrest.

"Nobody can believe this is happening to me," he said, sounding as if he still can't quite believe it himself.

The Clerkin family on their Caribbean vacation, just before Patrick Clerkin, right, was arrested.