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SC Irish Travelers aren’t romantic ‘Robin Hoods,’ federal prosecutor says

A neighborhood in North Augusta, home to the Irish travelers

A neighborhood in North Augusta, home to the Irish travelers.
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A neighborhood in North Augusta, home to the Irish travelers.

A prosecutor heatedly told a federal judge Tuesday that South Carolina’s Irish Travelers — with their white-collar crimes that bilk insurance companies and government agencies — operate in a culture of lies, theft and ignorance, and should not be romanticized as modern-day “Robin Hoods.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May, overseeing a yearslong FBI investigation into the group’s criminal schemes, was reacting to a claim by a defense attorney, seeking a light sentence for an Irish Traveler.

“The whole village” — Aiken County’s Murphy Village, home of the Irish Travelers — “has a Robin Hood-type philosophy,” defense attorney Ralph Kennedy told U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs, a reference to a romantic English outlaw who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor during the Middle Ages.

That assertion brought May, the lead prosecutor in the case, to his feet a few minutes later.

“Let’s make sure we understand this. This is not a Robin Hood philosophy. It is theft!” May said, his voice rising.

Noting Kennedy’s client, Rose Smith, was going to get probation, instead of a prison sentence like almost two dozen other Irish Travelers, May boomed, “Let’s make sure there is no mistake. If she does this again, she’s going to prison!”

If the Irish Travelers think of themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods, then federal authorities will go to Murphy Village and “set up camp, and we will prosecute everybody,” May continued.

Tuesday’s exchange came during sentencing hearings for two S.C. Irish Travelers and an English Traveler:

Melissa Riley, 42, of Murphy Village was sentenced to six months in federal prison, followed by six months of home detention. Riley pleaded guilty to carrying out four major frauds, including filing false claims to get food stamps and filing false income tax returns to get $5,000 refunds. Judge Childs could have given Riley more time. But Riley and her lawyer, Jason Peavy, told the judge the defendant’s school-age children and disabled parents depend on her to keep their household going.

Harry Smith, a 53-year-old English Traveler who lives in Aiken County and is married to Rose Smith, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for fraudulently taking out a $250,000 life insurance policy on a dying man. Such schemes are common in the Irish Traveler community, according to prosecutors. Smith could have received less prison time, but he has an extensive criminal history, including convictions for forgery, embezzlement, theft and drug offenses, the judge said.

Rose Smith received two years’ probation for misprision of a felony. That means she knew about her husband’s crime but concealed the illegal act.

Tuesday’s hearings are part of a five-plus year investigation into South Carolina’s Irish Travelers. So far, that investigation has resulted in approximately 55 indictments for fraud, prosecutors say. About 50 suspects have pleaded guilty. Of those, 26 have been sentenced, including 22 sent to prison.