Comments such as, “Those Travelers are guilty as sin,” have been casually thrown about in North Augusta for years as local residents drive past the enormous brick mansions that line both sides of Edgefield Road less than a mile past Exit 5 off Interstate 20.
These gigantic homes with aluminum foil or butcher paper covering the windows and large statues of the Virgin Mary in the front yard have long raised suspicion in North Augusta.
But this week, the world “guilty” took on a whole different meaning in Murphy Village.
More than 20 Irish Travelers from North Augusta walked into federal court on Tuesday, Feb. 28, and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering.
It was part of a plea bargain between the federal government and a handful of well-respected, high-priced defense attorney representing the Irish Travelers.
In return for the guilty pleas, acting U.S. Attorney Beth Drake and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May have agreed to drop the other federal charges against the 22 defendants.
Whether the Irish Travelers will receive any significant jail time relating to these charges is yet to be seen. Sentencing will be determined at a later date.
However, the defense attorneys representing the Irish Travelers insist that these allegations have already had a detrimental impact on their clients.
Criminal defense attorney Jack Swerling told a group of reporters outside the federal courtroom in Columbia not long after his client, Rose Mulholland, was indicted that the charges have been extremely difficult on the entire community of Murphy Village.
“A lot of them are family. A lot of them are related to each other, so they are going through it together,” said Swerling, who is widely known as one of the best criminal defense lawyers in South Carolina. “At least they have each other to go through it together. But they are upset. They didn’t know this was coming.”
Back in August, the more than 20 Irish Travelers were charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) for allegedly committing crimes of fraud including schemes to obtain life insurance benefits, food stamps and Medicaid funds and providing false information involving vehicle financing.
RICO is a federal law designed to combat organized crime in this country and allows prosecution and civil penalties for racketeering activity performed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise.
This 45-count federal indictment appears to have begun to pull back the curtain on some of the illegal activity allegedly occurring in Murphy Village, which is home to about 3,000 Irish Travelers.
“Murphy Village is insular and isolated,” the 18-page indictment stated. “The Travelers speak a unique dialect of English and Gaelic, which is called ‘Cant,’ in addition to normal English. Travelers refer to non-Travelers as ‘country people.’
“Many of the defendants are Travelers and reside in Murphy Village where they own large homes, luxury cars, and expensive jewelry and clothes, which are often acquired through the fraud schemes.”
The indictment alleged that the defendants fraudulently obtained food stamp benefits by providing the federal government with false information regarding their income and employment history.
The defendants also allegedly provided false information to the government to receive Medicaid and private health and life insurance.
The federal government insisted that the actions by the 22 defendants constituted an “enterprise” or criminal organization that defrauded members of the general public.
One of the main purposes of this criminal organization was “defrauding victims who appeared to be vulnerable and naïve through various crimes, including but not limited to, theft, swindling and deceptive and fraudulent construction and service work,” the indictment stated.
The defendants were also accused of “laundering money to conceal the source, ownership and control of the money, and to promote criminal activity, and structuring withdrawals and deposits of bank accounts to avoid the bank reporting requirements.”
Those named in the indictment were Hannah Carroll, Rose M. Mulholland, Kim Mulholland, Caroline Sherlock, Catherine Carroll, Anthony Carroll, Johnny M. Sherlock, Mary Rita Sherlock, Leslie Ann Sherlock, Jimmy J. Carroll, Mary Costello, Mary Gorman Carroll, Jimmy Gorman, Leslie C. Gorman, Renee Carroll, Rose S. Mulholland, Susan Sherlock, Tommy Sherlock, William Carroll, Johnny Mack, Leonard New and Angela Askew.
According to acting U.S. Attorney Beth Drake’s office, these charges came as a result of a “long-term, multi-agency investigation” conducted by the FBI, the IRS’s criminal investigation division, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General, as well as the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and the state Department of Social Services.
During the defendants first court appearance in late August, 19 of the Irish Travelers — which included 11 women and eight men — initially pleaded not guilty to the federal racketeering and fraud charges.
Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges released the defendants on a $25,000 unsecured bail each, but required a handful of the men charged in the indictment to be monitored by a GPS tracking device because their work required them to leave the North Augusta area.
In the initial two-hour arraignment hearing, Hodges warned the Irish Travelers not to break the terms of their bond.
“You will not only face additional charges, but it would also be a violation of bond, which means I can put you in prison until this issue is resolved,” Hodges reportedly told the defendants, according to Charleston’s Post and Courier.
She concluded her comments to the defendants by saying, “Stay out of trouble.”
While the defense attorneys representing the Irish Travelers may have said these charges came out of the blue and surprised their clients, this investigation didn’t happen overnight.
In fact, the federal government collected a great deal of evidence regarding the actions of the 22 defendants.
“Members and associates of the enterprise defrauded the federal government and the state of South Carolina of food stamp benefits under the SNAP program by submitting false and fraudulent information regarding their income and employment on food stamps applications and re-certifications,” the indictment stated. “The SNAP program provides food stamps only for the poor, and members and associates of the enterprise fraudulently understated their income and employment on food stamp applications to obtain these benefits for which they were not entitled.”
Of course, these are the same defendants who can somehow afford to pay for the legal services of the most prominent defense attorneys in South Carolina to represent them.
But, regardless, these charges shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise to the Travelers.
Anyone remotely paying attention to politics in South Carolina would have been aware of the fact that S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has been vigorously pursing food stamp fraud cases for the past two years.
Just this month, Wilson announced that more than $273,000 in restitution has been ordered to be collected in South Carolina from food stamp fraud cases in 2016.
Last year, approximately 70 individuals were convicted statewide for food stamp fraud and ordered to pay restitution to the Department of Social Services.
Since the beginning of this program in January 2015, Wilson stated that South Carolina has ordered restitution in the amount of more than $610,000.
“At only two years old, this program has shown that food stamp fraud is absolutely a problem in South Carolina,” Wilson said in a prepared statement. “There are families and individuals who rely on this program and use it for its intended purpose.”
In South Carolina, the attorney general’s office estimated that approximately 855,000 people receive food stamps. Wilson noted that while the majority of SNAP recipients use the program as intended, those who abuse it divert funds from families who rely on the program.
“The criminals who are abusing this system are not only stealing money from taxpayers, but also from those in need,” Wilson stated.
By pleading guilty, the Irish Travelers are also agreeing to forfeit any property seized by the government, including some of their vehicles and homes.
Specifically, the Irish Travelers who defrauded financial institutions, lenders and automobile financing companies to obtain loans for the purchase of automobiles may soon be without a ride.
“Members and associates of the enterprise knowingly caused the fraudulent automobile loan applications to be filed electronically by means of wire communication in interstate commerce for the purpose of executing the scheme to defraud,” the indictment stated. “Members and associates of the enterprise frequently rolled back the odometers of their vehicles when trading or selling the vehicles and to minimize mileage under lease agreements.”
Some of the vehicles fraudulently obtained according to the federal government included an Audi 4G, a BMW X5, a 2014 Cadillac, an Audi A7, a Mercedes Benz CLS400, a Dodge Ram 2500, a Jeep Cherokee, a Lexus GX460 and an Audi A6.
However, the federal government also lists a total of 25 vehicles that could be “subject to forfeiture” that included everything from a a 2015 BMW X5 to a 2015 Porsche Panamera.
The indictment also named at least five properties in Murphy Village that could be seized by the government including some lavish homes on Kerry Court, Mistletoe Court, Butterfly Drive and Kildare Drive in Murphy Village.
While it may seem like the Irish Travelers in North Augusta are having an extremely difficult week in the public eye, they aren’t the only Travelers in this country making headlines.
Just this week, an Irish Traveler in Fort Worth, Texas pleaded guilty to conspiring to murder a 69-year-old housekeeper, according to The Star-Telegram.
Bernard “Little Joe” Gorman, 28, along with his father was accused of “stalking and killing” the elderly woman, Anita Fox, in 2014 with the intent of collecting on a $1 million insurance policy on her.
The father and son team brutally stabbed Anita Fox, who apparently identified herself as an “English Traveler.”
The father, Gerard “Big Joe” Gorman, reportedly died of suspected natural causes in Houston before he could be arrested in the case.
Meanwhile, over the past few months, the FBI attempted to seize $5 million in life insurance benefits from policies that investigators claimed were fraudulently obtained for Fox.
So, what does this have to do with the Irish Travelers in Murphy Village?
According to a probable cause affidavit by FBI Special Agent Ronald Grosse, he specifically discussed the insurance fraud investigation that had been ongoing in North Augusta since July 2014.
“Travelers have been known to be involved in life insurance scams in the past,” Grosse wrote. “These scams typically involve lying on the policy applications about income, net worth, health, identifying information, and whether other policies have been issued.”
After further reviewing the insurance records, the FBI investigation revealed that North Augusta businessman Charles Mercier had a connection to the Texas case.
“Charles Mercier, an insurance agent whose family writes life insurance policies almost exclusively for Travelers, had written five policies on Anita Fox in 2007 and 2008,” according to The Star-Telegram.
In July 2013, one of the $1 million policies was changed to make Pat Gorman, an Irish Traveler who resided in Virginia, a co-owner of the policy and the new beneficiary.
However, Texas police believe that Pat Gorman, “Big Joe” Gorman and two other relatives all paid a portion of the policy’s premiums with plans to eventually split the cash.
But the temptation of the $1 million life insurance policy eventually led the two Gormans to kill Anita Fox.
In court this week, Bernard “Little Joe” Gorman, who police believe drove the getaway car, pleaded guilty to a lesser count of conspiracy to commit murder, a second-degree felony, according to The Star-Telegram.
On Monday, Feb. 27, a state district judge in Texas sentenced Gorman to 14 years in prison, which was a part of his plea deal.
Family members of Anita Fox struggled to contain their anger during the court hearing.
“I’m not going to share my memories of my mom with you,” Anita Fox’s son, Al Fox III, reportedly told Gorman in the Fort Worth courtroom. “I’m here to welcome you to your hell.”
It is clear that the insurance fraud investigation that began in Murphy Village back in 2014 has opened several doors for the federal government and given investigators much more insight into the possible illegal activities occurring throughout the country involving some Irish Travelers.