Twenty Irish Travelers and associates pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal racketeering charges alleging they are part of a major organized financial fraud crime ring. Nineteen pleaded in the morning; a 20th, on Tuesday afternoon.
The final two Irish Travelers indicted in the case are scheduled to be arraigned and plead not guilty Wednesday morning.
Tuesday morning’s hearing, held in a packed downtown Columbia courtroom, was marked by the appearance of not just Irish Travelers – a secretive Aiken County group known for their traveling businesses – but by 10 or so of South Carolina’s most prominent and high-priced criminal defense lawyers representing the defendants.
The high-priced lawyers underscored an irony in the case: Although most of the defendants face federal charges of understating their income so they could qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, most apparently can afford top legal talent, a group known for receiving their entire fee in advance. Five defendants, however, said they could not afford a lawyer; a public defender will be appointed for each.
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Authorities also have moved to seize 25 mostly high-end, late-model vehicles, including a Porsche, a Mercedes, three BMWs and three Lexuses from Travelers’ homes in the Murphy Village area of Aiken County.
Federal Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges allowed each of the 20 to go free on unsecured $25,000 bonds. Six who travel often outside the Georgia-South Carolina area must wear GPS ankle monitors. Hodges warned them they could be sent to prison if they violate the terms of their release, which include not breaking any local, state or federal laws.
During a two-hour hearing, Hodges spent 27 minutes reading out loud nearly every word in a sweeping 17-page federal indictment made public Aug. 16.
The charges are more involved than the mostly minor swindling charges some Irish Travelers have faced previously.
The 45-count indictment spells out financial crimes allegedly uncovered by an FBI investigation that lasted more than a year: money laundering, illegal banking transactions, food stamp and Medicaid fraud and a mix of other alleged crimes.
Each defendant also faces charges under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO. That charge by itself, Hodges told the defendants, means each faces a maximum $250,000 fine and a 20-year prison sentence.
Among the lawyers for the defendants are four former federal prosecutors whose knowledge of criminal laws will no doubt be put to use exploring any weaknesses in the prosecutors’ cases. Two lawyers are state representatives.
The lengthy federal investigation into the Irish Travelers was aided by the presence of at least one inside informant, defense attorney Jack Swerling speculated to reporters after Tuesday’s hearing.
Another defense attorney, Greg Harris, said: “Early indications are that the government has a number of cooperating witnesses who come from the (Murphy Village) community. These are matters we will need to address.” A “cooperating witness” is an insider who helps prosecutors build their case, often in return for not being prosecuted.
Lead federal prosecutor assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May had no comment on any aspect of the case as he left the courthouse, accompanied by FBI agent Ron Grosse. Documents released so far in the case contain no mention of any informant.
Nearly all the Irish Travelers and associates arraigned Tuesday come from Murphy Village, an unincorporated area near North Augusta. The area is home to one of the largest communities of Irish Travelers in the nation. According to the 2010 Census, about 1,400 Travelers live there. National counts of Travelers range between 10,000 and 40,000.
The group, said to be descended from Irish immigrants in the 1850s, is known for its closed ways. Members of the group tend to marry within the group and keep to themselves. Among the 22 indicted, there were seven with the last name Carroll or Caroll, six with the last name Sherlock and three with the last name Mulholland.
A small segment of the Irish Travelers for years has been the object of police raids and attention. But no one can remember a law enforcement offensive that has the scope of the current FBI roundup that alleges organized crime and so far has netted 22 suspects.
The case has been assigned to U.S. Judge Michelle Childs. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart is also on the case. In addition to Swerling and Harris, a former federal prosecutor, defense attorneys representing Irish Travelers include former federal prosecutors Mark Moore, Beatty Ashmore and Rose Mary Parham. Others are state Reps. Leon Stavrinakis and Peter McCoy, both of Charleston. Another is Jack Duncan, former president of the S.C. Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Indicted in the Irish Travelers case are:
Hannah Carroll, Rose 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 Caroll, Johnny Mack, Leonard New and Angela Askew
PREVIOUS IRISH TRAVELER ARRESTS
In 2002, a state task force swept through Murphy Village and arrested 14 Irish Travelers on charges of food stamp fraud, tax evasion and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. As the arrests were going on, a van carrying a reporter and film crew for “Dateline NBC” filmed the roundup.
That 2002 action was dubbed “Shayjo” – the Irish Traveler word for police – by law enforcement. Eight of the arrests at that time were related to the truancy of Traveler children from schools in Aiken and Edgefield counties.
In 2001, seven Irish Travelers were indicted by S.C. federal authorities on various fraud charges, including using fraudulent income tax returns as proof of income to finance cars they purchased.