THE relationship between 'Irish Travellers' and the settled community in the United States is a fraught one. And in the southern states, where most of the Irish Traveller community is based, it has deteriorated further.
Last Monday, after hearing evidence that Rickey Allen Daugherty, a member of an Irish Traveller group, had duped an 80-year-old woman out of $12,000 for a con repair job to the guttering on her house, a jury sentenced him to life imprisonment. Under Texas law, Daugherty, 58, will die in prison.
Even by Texas standards, which has the most severe sentencing record and highest death penalty rulings of any US state, Daugherty's sentence was harsh. It reflects the anger at the systematic scamming of lonely, elderly people by cruel professional con artists like Daugherty.
It took the Harris County jury just 18 minutes to send Daugherty away to prison for the rest of his natural life after hearing he had conned two elderly women, convincing both that they needed urgent repairs to their houses.
The court saw CCTV images of Daugherty cashing the $12,000 cheque in Tennessee where he was arrested. He was sent back to Texas to face charges relating to two similar cases. Facing the daunting prospect of receiving the maximum sentence, Daugherty sliced open his stomach with a razor in court. This did not deter the jury from imposing the maximum sentence.
The case again drew attention to the activities and culture of the 'Irish Traveller' community in the US. In 2002, Madelyne Gorman Toogood became infamous when CCTV pictures of her repeatedly punching her four-year-old daughter in the back seat of her car were broadcast across America.
Toogood was said to have been infuriated with the child after a failed shoplifting expedition. She had instructed the child to create a diversion while she stole clothes from a store in Indiana. Instead the little girl had played quietly with toys and Toogood, who had previously been caught shoplifting in another store in the chain, was spotted and had to leave.
Toogood, a member of a group based in Texas, was the first case of criminal activity by a Traveller to reach national prominence. Across the US, however, there are repeated cases of settled people - known by Travellers as 'country folk' - being 'bilked'.
Toogood was described as a member of a group which travels around the American south and mid-west carrying out 'quick-hit fraud', just like Daugherty. Her husband, Johnny, had convictions in a number of states for fraud and had used various aliases.
The stories of crimes and misdeeds has tarnished the reputation of Travellers in the US. However, others argue that many are competent hard-working trades people with regular, satisfied customers. Members of one of the best known communities, based in Murphy Village in South Carolina, are well known as skilled tradesmen. But locals say that a percentage of the Murphy Village population is involved in criminal activity and they have found false number plates on vehicles driven by Travellers.
The surnames of people in Murphy Village reflect uninterrupted lineage from their Irish descendents: Carroll, Costello, Gorman, O'Hara, Sherlock. The men also use nicknames like 'Black Pete', 'White Man', 'Peekaboo' and 'Mikey Boy'.
Other infamous Traveller scams included a case in 1992 in which a brother and sister team created a rape-and-robbery scenario in a Disney hotel in Florida. Wanda Mary Normile, whose aliases included Wanda Mary Burke, Wanda Mary Cleveland and Leah Ann Kelly, then 21, had consensual sex with a partner (who didn't know about the scam) in a nearby hotel. She then got a room at the Caribbean Beach Resort on Disney property, and got her 33-year-old brother to bind her to a bed with duct tape and beat her repeatedly with a stick. Normile then told police a horrifying tale of being beaten, raped and robbed by a man "in a Dracula costume" while her 10-month-old baby daughter was in the room.
After reporting the 'rape', Normile filed suit against Disney, which offered her a $200,000 settlement. She refused and asked for more than $1m but the hoax was uncovered after a tip-off from a disgruntled relative. Her brother died of an undisclosed illness in March 1994. Two months later, Normile pleaded guilty to theft and falsely reporting a crime, and was sentenced to three and a half years.
In 1999, a father and two sons were jailed for six months for using false identifications to buy three new pickup trucks in South Carolina. In 1996, a judge in Kentucky jailed a 47-year-old Irish Traveller for 10 years for robbing and beating an elderly deaf-mute woman.
In 2000, three Travellers were charged in Louisville, Kentucky with swindling a mentally disabled 69-year-old man out of more than $5,000. One of those charged, Brenda J Mensik, 42, had previously been charged with conning more than $3,000 from an 80-year-old blind man. In August 2001, police in Franklin, Tennessee said a man accused of forging a $4,200 cheque belonging to an 89-year-old woman had told them he was a member of the Irish Travellers. The list goes on.
According to officials in the US, the Traveller community still fails to educate its children and continues to marry them off at an early age to first or second cousins.
The roots of the community are not fully known but it is believed the Travellers arrived in the US as part of the wave of emigration from Ireland from the 19th century onwards. The community has retained its distinctive language - known as 'cant' - and most Travellers live in elaborately decorated houses or trailers. They also enjoy dressing extravagantly for weddings, christenings and communions. Here, gardai say the American and Irish Traveller communities have developed close links over the past decade or so.
In the aftermath of the Toogood case, a Wisconsin newspaper, the Oshkosh Western, reported details of a series of scams inflicted on elderly people in the area. In one case, a Traveller who had scammed an elderly couple used their telephone to call Ireland.
It also reported the case of Richard and Iris Patzkowsky of Friendship, Adams County who paid Travellers $8,300 for a sub-standard tarmac job on their driveway. "The Patzkowskys can't be blamed for their naivety. They are like many other people in Wisconsin - trusting," it wrote.
A police chief said he had found Travellers carrying multiple identities and using magnetic licence plates on their pick-ups to avoid detection. "These people are pretty smart. They come into the state with Wisconsin plates so they don't look like transients," Captain Manny Bolz said. "Most of them change their names like the rest of us change our underwear."
However, back in South Carolina, the local police chief, Lee Warrington told the Washington Times that a local Traveller crew had painted his roof and paved his driveway and the work was entirely to his satisfaction.
Chief Lee Wetherington said that while there were scam artists in the Travelling community, they were at "about the same proportion as in society at large".
"They did good work," Wetherington said. "I would trust Mikey Boy Sherlock with anything I owned."