Twenty-one members of South Carolina’s close-knit Irish Travelers community pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to one count each of conspiracy to commit racketeering.
The guilty pleas, made in three brief hearings in Columbia before U.S. Judge Michelle Childs, opened a window into a major FBI-state-local investigation into the closed subculture of the Irish Travelers community in Aiken County, centered around Murphy Village near North Augusta.
“Their lifestyle is largely funded by criminal activities,” assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May told U.S. Judge Michelle Childs, adding that many “but not all” of the 2,500 Murphy Village area residents are caught up making a living through defrauding people, government agencies and financial institutions.
The investigation, which began several years ago, has “effectively dismantled a significant component of the complex criminal element operating out of Murphy Village,” said Beth Drake, acting U.S. Attorney for South Carolina.
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More indictments are possible. Under the plea deals made Tuesday, the government dropped 44 criminal charges in exchange for those pleading guilty agreeing to be “cooperating witnesses” and give testimony against others as yet unindicted.
“The investigation is continuing,” May said late Tuesday afternoon. He declined to give details, reveal how many potential new targets there might be or indicate when any new indictments would be issued.
Over the years, law enforcement has made arrests of small groups of Murphy Village Travelers here and there for various swindles and frauds. The current dragnet, which has involved years of investigations, is the most extensive to date.
Evidence against the Travelers who pleaded guilty Tuesday involves witnesses, “cooperating witnesses,” documents and forensic accounting records, May told Childs.
An indictment in the case, released earlier, says Travelers were caught committing fraud on a wide variety of fronts: applying for Medicaid and food stamps, filing for tax refunds, laundering money, structuring bank deposits and withdrawals to avoid IRS reporting requirements and swindling “victims who appeared to be vulnerable and naive through various crimes,” including fraudulent construction and service work. They also did participated in illegal life insurance and car financing schemes, the indictment says.
Only two of the 21 in court Tuesday had more than an eighth-grade education. Most had stopped school between fifth and seventh grade, they told the judge.
Most had similar names. There were seven Carrolls (including William Caroll), three Mulhollands, five Sherlocks and two Gormans.
Each defendant faces up to 20 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and three years of supervised release. Sentencing will be at a later date.
Defense attorneys have pointed out there was no violence involved.
Entering pleas Tuesday were:
Kim Mulholland, 32; Tommy Sherlock, 59; Mary Costello, 62; Jimmy Gorman, 39; Leslie Gorman, 41; Hannah Carroll, 60; and Susan Sherlock, 54. Also: Jimmy Carroll, 48; Leslie Sherlock, 41; Renee Caroll, 30; Rose Mulholland, 39; Anthony Carroll, 52; Catherine Carroll, 45; and William Carroll, 61.
Also: Caroline Sherlock, Johnny M. Sherlock, Mary Rita Sherlock, Mary Gorman Carroll, Rose S. Mulholland and Johnny Mack.