Mom brings baggage from Irish Travelers

Sun-Times/September 24, 2002
By Richard Roeper

The woman who was captured on videotape repeatedly slapping her 4-year-old daughter in a department-store parking lot in Mishawaka, Ind., has told the world she is not a monster--but she is an Irish Traveler, and, by some accounts, that label isn't considered to be much of an upgrade from that of monster.

Madelyne Toogood--possessor of the weirdest name in the news since a man named Richard Bizarro was arrested for, well, bizarre behavior on a flight last year--and her husband, John, say they're members of the Irish Travelers, a group of families that roam the South and the Midwest doing odd jobs and, according to police, often engaging in quick-hit fraud. (Toogood says her husband is a legitimate contractor.)

There might not be a more mysterious, maligned and misunderstood clan in the United States. Are they devout Roman Catholics making an honest living by doing home-improvement and repair work as they travel the land in the tradition of their nomadic ancestors, or are they cold-blooded con artists and thieves?

No doubt there's some truth in both descriptions. In some ways, the Irish Travelers are like the anti-Amish. Both groups are tight-knit societies with a specialized dialect, but, whereas the Amish stress simplicity and modesty, many Travelers love expensive trucks and flashy clothes, and their preferred method of paying for things is a wad of $100 bills.

The question is, where does that money come from?

I'm sure there are many upstanding citizens among the estimated 10,000-plus Irish Travelers in the United States, but more than a few Travelers have been involved in some ugly escapades.

  • In 1992, a brother-sister team of Irish Travelers created a rape-and-robbery scenario in a Walt Disney World hotel. Wanda Mary Normile, a k a Wanda Mary Burke, a k a Wanda Mary Cleveland, a k a Leah Ann Kelly, then 21, had consensual sex with a partner (who didn't know about the scam) in a nearby hotel, so that there would be evidence of recent sexual contact. She then got a room at the Caribbean Beach Resort on Disney property, and, with her consent, her 33-year-old brother bound her to a bed with duct tape and beat her repeatedly with a stick. Normile then contacted police and told a horrifying tale of being beaten, raped and robbed by a man "in a Dracula costume" while her 10-month-old daughter was in the room.

Several months after reporting the "rape" to police, Normile filed suit against Disney, which offered her a $200,000 settlement. She refused the money and asked for more than $1 million, but the hoax was uncovered after investigators received a tip from a disgruntled relative.

The brother died of an undisclosed illness in March 1994. Two months later, Normile pleaded guilty to grand theft and falsely reporting a crime, and was sentenced to 3-1/2 years in prison.

  • In 1999, a father and two sons were sentenced to six months each in federal prison for fraudulent use of a Social Security number. Authorities said the men were Irish Travelers who had used the false identifications in an effort to buy three new pickup trucks in South Carolina.
  • In 1996, a Jefferson County, Ky., judge sentenced a 47-year-old Irish Traveler to 10 years in prison for robbing and beating an elderly deaf-mute woman.
  • Earlier this year, three Irish Travelers were indicted in Louisville, Ky., on charges of swindling a mentally disabled, 69-year-old man out of more than $5,000. One of those charged, 42-year-old Brenda J. Mensik, had previously been charged with conning more than $3,000 from an 80-year-old blind man.
  • In August 2001, police in Franklin, Tenn., said a man accused of forging a $4,200 check belonging to an 89-year-old woman had told them he was a member of the Irish Travelers.

It's not as if one can find an official spokesman for the Irish Travelers, but Richard J. Waters, a man who claims Irish Traveler heritage and maintains a pro-Traveler Web site, has posted a response to the reports that Madelyne Toogood is an Irish Traveler.

"First, I groaned when I heard the surnames involved, knowing full well that all the old gossip ... would be trotted out to make the rounds once more," wrote Waters. "Then, I was horrified by what looked like the fierce character of the assault. If this was a Traveler woman ... doing the presumed battering, it was a Traveler child apparently being battered. Any child in trouble commands the assistance of a Traveler."

Waters also defended Toogood and questioned whether the camera angle made the beating look worse than it really was. He lost me there. But the point about 4-year-old Martha Toogood being a "Traveler child" stuck with me.

Madelyne and John Toogood have three children--and apparently they're being brought up as Irish Traveler children. Perhaps those of us in the outside world can't even begin to understand what that means. But, from what we do know about the lifestyle and from what we've seen of Madelyne Toogood's parenting skills, a foster home sounds like a pretty good place for little Martha.

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