A woman associated with South Carolina’s Irish Travelers gave a laptop computer full of incriminating information to federal authorities, making it possible for the FBI and prosecutors to put together criminal charges against dozens of members of the insular group.
The woman — 63-year-old Bonnie General of Georgia — is not a member of the Irish Traveler community of more than 2,300, who live in an Aiken-North Augusta settlement called Murphy Village.
However, General was paid by Travelers to make counterfeit documents on her laptop computer that helped in illegal money-making schemes, a federal prosecutor said in court Friday.
“She had a treasure trove of information on that laptop,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May told U. S. District Judge Michelle Childs on Friday during a sentencing hearing for General at Columbia’s federal courthouse.
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For years, many Travelers have been associated with illegal acts and fraudulent schemes. The federal investigation is giving the public its closest look yet at the group’s dark side.
General had entered a guilty plea to wire fraud, a crime that carries a sentence of up to two years in prison. However, she was sentenced to three years on probation by Judge Childs. Childs said she went easy on the Augusta-area woman because she is in poor health and gave crucial help to law enforcement.
Until Friday, little had been revealed about how federal authorities assembled the evidence to indict more than 50 Irish Travelers since 2016. All have entered guilty pleas and more than a dozen have been sentenced to prison. More sentencing hearings are expected in coming months.
During Friday’s 30-minute hearing, May told Childs that General did not plan or instigate the Travelers’ white-collar fraud schemes. But, the prosecutor added, General was a vital “cog” in helping the Travelers carry out their unlawful acts.
Specifically, May said, Travelers went to General because she had the expertise to print counterfeit documents on her laptop.
These phony records included pay stubs, income tax returns and power bills, which the Travelers used to get low-interest loans to buy cars and qualify for life insurance in schemes that used insurance policies, May said.
According to the charges against her, General was implicated in the unlawful purchase of cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a $37,184 BMW 328i and a $35,900 Audi A4.
For making phony documents, General was paid $25 per record, May told the judge.
“She got a minimal amount while the rest of the conspirators were making a lot of money,” May said. “What harm she caused, she has greatly made up for.”
May said General, a University of Tennessee graduate, had fallen on hard times and was living “well below the poverty line.”
General was indicted in January 2016.
The day after she was indicted, General brought her laptop computer to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia and turned it over, May said.
At that time, federal prosecutors had been investigating the Travelers for more than two years. The information in General’s laptop “completed the circle” of evidence, enabling law enforcement to match up documents in the laptop with the suspects involved in frauds, May said.
“I’m just sorry,” General told the judge. “I am hurt that I’m even involved in this. It’s not my character. I don’t know what else to say.”
General’s lawyer, Dan Leonardi of Columbia, told Childs that his client’s ailments include cancer, heart trouble, hepatitis C, anxiety, depression and constant pain.
Childs, who has presided over the Irish Traveler cases, noted nearly all the defendants have been sentenced to prison thus far. But, the judge added, General’s case had “very unique circumstances” that justified probation.
Outside the courthouse, a tearful General said, “I never would have done it if I had known it was wrong.”