Irish Travelers raided on fraud, other charges

Task force formed in response to public outcry following an expose on the Traveler community by the television show Dateline NBC.

News Station 12/2002
By Kathy Steele

Augusta, Georgia -- In an early morning sweep through Murphy Village Saturday, a state task force arrested 14 Irish Travelers on charges of food stamp fraud, tax evasion and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The raid - dubbed Operation "Shayjo'' which is a Traveler word for the police - follows a six-month investigation by the South Carolina Traveler Crime Task Force, a multi-jurisdictional unit created by Attorney General Charlie Condon in May 1996.

Mr. Condon formed the task force in response to public outcry following an expose on the Traveler community by the television show Dateline NBC. The program spotlighted the tradition of arranged marriages in the community, and questioned whether Travelers allowed children under age 14 to marry - a violation of state law.

Eight of the arrests - all on the delinquency charges - were related to the truancy of Traveler children from schools in Aiken and Edgefield counties. In addition, two Travelers were charged with food stamp fraud, three with state income tax evasion and one with writing a bad check.

No arrests were made Saturday related to underage marriages. However, Mr. Condon has scheduled a press conference at noon Monday at the Aiken County Sheriff's Office where he will discuss legislative changes in the current law.

Aiken County Sheriff Howard said the task force investigated allegations of under-age marriages and were prepared to serve warrants. However, on advice from the attorney general's office, they were not made, he said.

"That was disappointing to us because it was one of the driving forces in putting the task force together,'' the sheriff said. "We really did address that issue. We had cooperation with other authorities and offices to look at ways to document under-age marriages. The issue is the ability to sustain a charge that would stick.''

The Irish Travelers are a reclusive community of itinerant workers, about 2,000 of whom live in lavish homes and mobile homes on either side of U.S. Highway 25, straddled between Aiken and Edgefield counties. They are descended from 19th century Irish peddlers, and some have reputations as scam artists.

At 6:45 a.m. Saturday, about 25 agents from the sheriff's office, State Law Enforcement Division and state offices of the Department of Social Services and Department of Revenue fanned out in marked and unmarked cars to deliver 22 arrest warrants.

A van carrying a reporter and a camera crew filming for Dateline NBC zipped along the streets in Murphy Village in pursuit of police making arrests. Arresting officers met little or no resistance as they rang door bells in the neatly-manicured neighborhood along U.S. Highway 25.

Most Travelers walked politely to waiting police cars or vans.

But not everyone was cooperative.

Pete "Tick'' Carroll, who was charged with tax evasion, angrily snapped at reporters and cameramen observing his arrest.

"This ain't right. This just ain't right,'' he said, as officers transferred the hand-cuffed man from a patrol car to a police van stopped in the middle of Heatherwood Drive. Mr. Carroll covered his face with his jacket.

Within 90 minutes, the arrested Travelers were booked at a sheriff's sub-station in North Augusta. They were then transported to detention centers in Aiken and Edgefield counties to await bond hearings.

Overall, the task force's first raid was successful, said Maj. Jody Rowland, the sheriff's chief deputy. Only a handful of warrants against four people went unserved, he said.

"This is the first big hurdle,'' he said. "There will have to be follow-up.''

However, he added: "I think they'll feel the pressure. Not only are they feeling it in the national media sense, they're feeling it from local media, they're feeling it from half a dozen different agencies. I think they see the need to cooperate.''

Sheriff Sellers added: "Many in the Travelers have supported our activities,'' Aiken County Sheriff Howard Sellers said. "We're not talking about a bad group but individuals who have committed crimes within the group.''

Charges in Detail

The most serious charges of tax evasion were levied against the following: Pete "Tick'' Carroll, 52, P.O. Box 6592, Butterfly Drive, three counts; Tommy Joe "Big Joe'' Riley, 44, P.O. Box 7427, seven counts; and Pete J. Carroll, 41, P.O. Box 6584, two counts.

Margaret Jean Carpenter, 27, 207 Gardner Road and Frederick Lee "Bo'' Napier, 50, 1535 Edgefield Road, both of North Augusta, were charged with fraudulent acquisition or use of food stamps. Larry W. Beam Sr., 56, 629 Oakdale St., Belvedere was charged with writing a fraudulent check.

The following were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor: Kathie Marie Sherlock, 35, 26 Heatherwood Dr., two counts; Tom Carroll, 43, and Ann Carroll, 35, both of 9-A Anthony St.; Tommy Carroll, 45, Foxfire Court; John Joseph Carroll, 49, 78 Foxfire Court; Rose Marie Sherlock, 39, Heatherwood Drive; Mary Catherine Carroll, 48, 78 Foxfire Court, all of North Augusta; and Ann M. Lewis, 33, Blanch Drive, Lot #12, Augusta.

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