Child's beating shines light on 'Irish gypsies':
Secretive nomads: 'Irish Travellers' include high number of con artists

by Michael Friscolanti
National Post, with files from the Ottawa Citizen, news services

September 24, 2002

After putting her four-year-old daughter into the back seat of the family SUV, Madelyne Gorman Toogood took a quick look around the parking lot just to make sure nobody was watching.

But despite her best effort to conceal what she was about to do, nearly everyone with a television has seen what happened that afternoon outside an Indiana department store, where a surveillance camera captured Mrs. Toogood shaking and slapping her daughter Martha in a violent fit of rage.

Even Mrs. Toogood, who later saw the clip on CNN, admitted she had acted "like a monster."

Yesterday, the lawyer representing the 25-year-old mother of three said his client will likely plead guilty to a charge of child battery and throw herself on the mercy of the court.

But although the contents of the clip are hard to refute -- at one point, Mrs. Toogood stopped to take a rest before continuing with her beating -- some observers believe the mother's decision to plead guilty has little to do with the infamous tape.

The Toogoods are members of a band of Texas-based "Irish Travellers," a group of nomads who move across the country in search of temporary jobs and quick paycheques.

The community, police say, includes a large number of con artists and petty criminals who spend their lives avoiding public attention. But with Mrs. Toogood in the spotlight, laying low has become nearly impossible.

"They don't like the attention from the media," said Dirk Moore of the National Association of Bunco Investigators, an organization dedicated to apprehending transient criminals.

"They don't like to be in the public eye."

Mr. Moore, like other law enforcement officials who track Irish Travellers, stressed that most members are not criminals. But because the legitimate members sometimes cover up for the criminal element, it is difficult to differentiate between the two.

"It's a close-knit family group," Mr. Moore said. "Outsiders are not allowed in."

Irish Travellers are descendants of an ethnic group called the Irish Tinkers, who came to the United States during the 1800s to escape the potato famine.

Since then, generations of Travellers have roamed the country in search of itinerant work. Today, most make their way across the country in trailer homes, living for short stints in RV parks and motels while seeking out odd jobs that tend to involve painting, paving and roofing.

Police, however, say some Irish Travellers prey on the elderly, conning them into paying thousands of dollars for unnecessary work or jobs that never get finished.

Mike Haines, a retired Dallas police detective who spent most of his career tracking Travellers, said in one case he investigated, an 85-year-old woman woke up to three men hammering away on her roof. When she went to see what was going on, the men told her she had called them the week before and asked them to fix the shingles. Det. Haines said the men would not leave until she handed over US$13,000 for the "work" they had already done.

In another case, Det. Haines said a group of Irish Travellers repaired a roof for a 95-year-old blind woman who lived in a house that resembled a shack. They charged her US$65,000 for the job.

"The house wasn't worth what the roof cost," he said.

Mrs. Toogood's clan of "Irish gypsies," known as the Greenhorn Carrolls, are based in Texas and are well-known to police, Det. Haines said.

Mrs. Toogood was wanted on two other warrants before being charged with child battery. Authorities in Texas said she did not pay a US$202 traffic ticket she received in April and failed to appear in court to face unrelated theft charges.

"The culture is very secretive," said Joe Livingston, a senior agent with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division who has investigated travellers for 18 years.

"They just tend to stay on the move and on the lam."

But for Mrs. Toogood, staying on the lam was impossible this time.

On Sept. 13, the young mother reportedly tried to return some items at Kohl's department store in Mishawaka, Ind., but the clerk refused.

According to Don Wright, author of the 1996 book Scam!, some Irish Travellers make money by shoplifting and returning the stolen items for a refund.

"A typical Irish Traveller woman or team of women -- there are usually two of them operating as a team -- will generate about $2,000 a day revenues that way," Mr. Wright said.

Mrs. Toogood's lawyer says she was upset because Martha was misbehaving in the store, opening toys and wandering away.

Whatever the reason, Mrs. Toogood was extremely angry when she left the store. That anger culminated in a 25-second beating that shocked even the most hardened social workers.

Nearly a week later, local police -- out of leads and worried that the girl in the Toyota Sequoia was badly hurt -- released the video in the hope it would generate some leads.

On Saturday, overwhelmed by the public backlash against her, Mrs. Toogood hired a lawyer and turned herself in.

She even appeared on some talk shows, reiterating the fact that although she hit her daughter in the back and pulled her hair, she did not punch her. "My children ain't abused," said Mrs. Toogood, who remains free on US$5,000 bail. "They ain't battered."

But yesterday, after dozens of cameras followed her in and out of court, the young mother refused to talk. Her lawyer said she is concentrating on the fight to have her daughter, who is currently in foster care, handed back to her family.

Det. Haines, however, believes Mrs. Toogood -- like the rest of her community -- just wants the whole spectacle to go away. "They figure out of sight, out of mind."

Mr. Wright said that when some Irish Travellers, who have been based in the southern United States, began moving into Canada about a decade ago, they quickly realized Canadians were not familiar with their scams.

"They were really successful in Ontario and then they spread out through the rest of the country. Since then, they've gone all the way to Alaska."

© Copyright 2002 National Post