Crime & Courts

25 more SC Irish Travelers plan to plead guilty to fraud charges

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.

Twenty-five more Irish Travelers from the North Augusta area have entered into guilty plea agreements on various federal charges of conspiracy and financial fraud, according to court records.

Plea agreements filed Tuesday indicate the 25 Travelers are agreeing to plead guilty and could be sentenced to prison for about two to three years each.

The agreements still must be approved by a federal judge.

Tuesday’s 25 new defendants bring to 52 the number of Irish Travelers and their associates who plan to plead guilty, or who have pleaded guilty, to fraud-related charges. Last August, the first federal charges against 22 Irish Travelers and associates were made public. Between then and this month, 27 Irish Travelers – including three originally indicted in January 2016 – have pleaded guilty.

The alleged illegal financial schemes described in court records at the U.S. District Court in Columbia involve millions of dollars worth of car and life insurance purchases, federal food stamps and Medicaid fraud, federal income tax refunds and credits as well as money laundering.

Attorney Pete Strom, who represents defendant Jay Carroll, said, “We are not going to see a situation where a large amount of money was stolen. What we are going to see is misrepresentations regarding income and wealth on automobile and insurance purchasing agreements. They are, however, violations of federal law.”

The large number of defendants, the seriousness of the charges, the complexity of the varied illegal financial schemes and the fact that the government’s evidence is apparently so overwhelming that 52 people have pleaded guilty, or intend to, without going to trial all add up to a historic investigation into a storied Carolinas subculture.

The probe has lasted more than two years, was directed by prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia, and involved the FBI and IRS and U.S. Marshal’s service, as well as numerous state and local law enforcement agencies.

A few Irish Travelers have been convicted of various illegal operations here and there over the years, but never so many as in this investigation.

About 1,400 Irish Travelers, many related by blood and marriage, live in and around Murphy Village, an unincorporated area near North Augusta. The group, known for its closed ways, is said to be descended from Irish immigrants who came to the area in the 1850s.

The close family ties were shown by the last names of Tuesday’s new defendants: seven Carrolls, seven Sherlocks, three O’Haras, three Rileys, two Gormans and two Macks.

For the most part, previously reported illegalities have consisted of convictions of their traveling handymen, who roam the Carolinas and Georgia and rip off unsuspecting homeowners by doing shoddy or unfinished repair work after being paid up front in cash. A popular scam was paving driveways with substandard material.

But the current indictments, guilty pleas and plea agreements go far beyond schemes to dupe homeowners. They reveal a widespread hidden culture of sophisticated financial corruption in which fiscal institutions and federal government programs were the criminals’ targets.

The 22 defendants indicted in August were charged with violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly called RICO, in which the government has to prove the defendants were part of a major, concerted criminal enterprise. In reaching the guilty pleas, federal prosecutors agreed to drop some major charges against those and other defendants.

The first charges in the ongoing investigation came in January 2016, when Irish Travelers Mary C. Sherlock, Bonnie General and Christie O’Hara were named in a single indictment on multiple fraud charges, according to court records.

At the time, that indictment was not publicized, because law enforcement officials were in the midst of what would become a sweeping financial fraud investigation.

Lead assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May on Tuesday declined comment on the cases. More information on the cases will be made public during upcoming guilty plea hearings, he said. No date has yet been set.

The 25 Travelers were named in what’s called “an information,” a charging document that describes the various crimes. Informations are issued in federal courts only when a defendant has agreed to enter into a plea agreement. Plea agreements themselves were filed later Tuesday.

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