Inside the world of Irish Travelers

Mother caught beating her child on a parking lot surveillance camera is member of mysterious group

Dateline NBC/October 11, 2002

October 11 -- The video is famous now, but it's no easier to watch - the angry mother, the tiny daughter, the 25 seconds of sickening violence. Today, Madelyne Toogood is facing felony charges of child abuse. But it's not her first run-in with the law. Toogood belongs to a secret society - a clannish group with a bad reputation. 'Dateline NBC' Correspondent Lea Thompson has been following them for years and she has the inside story on the secret world of the Irish Travelers.

They were the pictures that made headlines around the world - a mother pummeling her tiny daughter inside a van in a department store parking lot in Mishawaka, Indiana.

And by the time those horrific pictures made the news about that Friday the 13th the mother, Madelyne Toogood, and daughter, Martha Jean, had disappeared. But police did have a license plate, and an all points bulletin went out.

They traced the car to a small brick house just outside Fort Worth, Texas. That's when it became clear this was no ordinary investigation. Records show not just one car, but hundreds of vehicles listed at this address. Ford Explorers, Buick Rivieras, Mercedes, BMWs and pick up trucks. There were 65 pickup trucks - enough to open a used car lot. They found not only the Toogoods, but the Burkes, the Carols, the Daleys, Gallaghers, Gormans, Jennings, McDonalds, McNalleys, Reillys all apparently living right here.

Those names struck a responsive chord to investigators. They're all Irish Travelers - families that cross the country doing house repairs, roofs, driveways, and too often, not doing them very well. In fact officials say they're often flat out scams.

Fair or not Madelyne Toogood is getting caught up in that reputation. She says she makes no apologies for her life style.

"I chose my life," she says. "And I have no regrets in my life other than Friday the 13th of this year. That's the only regret I have."

'Dateline' has discovered Madelyne Toogood once had state ID's from Texas, Missouri, and New Jersey - all at the same time. Now she has an Indiana ID card under the name of Madelyne Gorman and a Michigan drivers license using the name Toogood. In court records, she said she lived in Indiana - home to George's Gyros, Mechelle's Hair Salon, and Guns Plus. None appear to be the home of anybody.

It's all just a misunderstanding she says - all just prejudice against her life style.

"You know if you're an Irish Traveler, you need not apply because you're not welcome in communities," says Madelyne. "You're not welcome."

But, maybe there's more to it than that.

Name Known to Authorities

Lea Thompson: "You've been accused of shoplifting in Texas?"

Madelyne Toogood: "Um-hum"

Lea Thompson: "Did you do it?"

Madelyne Toogood: "I don't think I can answer that."

Lea Thompson: "And why not?

Madelyne Toogood: "Because without my attorney. I don't know if it's the right thing to do for me."

Lea Thompson: "Why did you run away from it?"

Madelyne Toogood: "I didn't run away from that. I didn't run away from that. That was miscommunications between me and two different lawyers that I had down there. That was - I was trying to get to fix it."

But the local prosecutor says there has been no attempt to "fix it". There is still a warrant out for her arrest. And the charge? Madelyne Toogood is accused of diverting a clerk's attention by returning some blue jeans while another traveler was stealing clothes in a Texas Kohl's department store.

And where did the parking lot incident in Indiana take place? Outside a Kohl's department store. And what was Madelyne Toogood doing in that store? She was trying to return some blue jeans. But her daughter, Martha Jean, was causing such a ruckus that Madelyne was paged over the store's loudspeaker and before long, a clerk was rooting through her shopping bag. Store security turned the surveillance cameras on her and got the parking lot video that no one will ever forget.

And then there is Madelyne's husband Johnny Toogood. As a teenager he scammed an elderly Ohio woman in a home improvement fraud.

"Well you know, I was young once," says Johnny. "Everybody you know has had a rough past, you know."

'Dateline' has found nine civil or criminal complaints including two convictions for theft against Johnny Toogood over a decade from Ohio to Pennsylvania and all the way to Montana. Authorities say they've run across Johnny Toogood using at least six different names including John Lark - a name he used when he met 91-year-old Helen Fisher six years ago.

Helen has since passed away, but her niece says she'll never forget what happened when Lark/Toogood charmed his way into her Aunt's home.

"They followed her up to the door, and they suggested to her that she needed home repairs," says Fisher's niece,

Toogood and his team hit her four different times over several years taking her for nearly $7,000.

"He looked like such a nice guy and I couldn't understand why a young man like that would prey on the elderly," she says.

Toogood pleaded guilty, paid back the stolen money and never went to jail. Then one day, he pulled up in Paul Hewitt's driveway in rural Indiana.

Hewitt says Toogood looks like the man that came up to him and wanted to do his driveway?

"He had a ring on that I remember and I saw it a while ago," says Hewitt. "It's a wide ring with a lot of diamonds in it."

Hewitt says John Toogood gave him a business card and offered to put three inches of blacktop on his driveway for a great price.

"I'm going to have to have it torn out," says Hewitt. "That's all I can have done."

Hewitt says his blacktop is so thin in places he has to use weed killer to keep the weeds down.

Irish Travelers have a bad reputation for ripping people off. Do they deserve it? "Some do and some don't," says Madelyne.

She might be talking about her own family. Her husband's grandfather killed another Traveler. One brother-in-law was convicted of swindling more than $100,000, and another skipped out on an assault charge. Madelyne's attorney said the family has no further comment.

But it isn't just criminal complaints against travelers that have drawn attention to the Travelers. It is also how travelers live their lives.

Traveler Way of Life

As winter arrives each year, so do a steady stream of Irish Travelers coming back to White Settlement, Texas. Behind the high fences of these trailer parks, Madelyne Toogood's clan sticks to itself. Secrecy and isolation is part of the Traveler way of life.

Irish Travelers arrived in the United States in the 19th century. They traveled the country trading mules and horses - sometimes honestly, sometimes not very honestly.

They made their homes in tent camps. Some went Northeast - the Northerners. Some went south toward Memphis - The Mississippi Travelers. Some went to Murphy Village, South Carolina - the Georgia boys. Madelyne Toogood's ancestors worked their way out west.

Travelers do what that name implies - roam the country living out of trailers and hotels. Those who are con artists have moved from trading in broken down horses to home repair scams.

Traveler children grow up fast - some using fake licenses to drive when they're 12, 13 and 14. And almost all drop out of school after the sixth or eighth grade.

How far did Madelyne go in traditional school? "Sixth grade," she says.

Madelyne says they took correspondence courses since. Almost all Traveler kids spend at least half the year on the road.

Back in 1996, 'Dateline' went to South Carolina's Murphy Village - home base of the largest Irish Traveler enclave in the U.S. It was as if we went through the looking glass into another world. There were palatial homes, with mobile homes in the back. Religious shrines were found in almost every yard. Finding someone was next to impossible. There are few house numbers here and many cars carry no license plates. Almost everybody has similar names. We counted 24 Tommy Carrolls, 15 Pat Rileys and 36 John Sherlocks.

Money and Marriages

One night the main drag of Murphy Village was jammed with shiny new trucks and girls gussied up for a dance. They call it looping, part of an old-fashioned mating ritual.

"For instance, whenever you're a teenager, you're not allowed to date. You don't date," says Irish Traveler Wanda Mary Normile.

Wanda Mary helped us understand what we were seeing on a Murphy Village home video.

"She'll like, do a model walk down the runway, you know," says Wanda Mary. "And turn around and show off her dress. She'll change two or three times, you know and show off her clothes and her body - what she looks like."

Murphy Village Travelers dress their preschoolers - kids as young as five to six years old - in sequined designer gowns. They put makeup on their toddlers.

"They're taught to dance early in very voluptuous ways that you wouldn't have your little girl you know, to touch themselves, to rub themselves, to move, to get attention," says Patsy Hart, one of few outsiders to marry an Irish Traveler in Murphy Village.

She says those parties are often negotiations for money and marriage.

"They could be playing in a sandbox one day, and snatched up and took and got married the next and be ten years old and have a baby by the time they are 11," says Hart.

Patsy Hart says her husband was 17 when he married his first wife - who was only 11.

What did he say when Hart asked him how he could marry a child? "He just said that's the way it is," she says. "You can't do anything about it."

When Patsy's son was born, she says she learned quickly the value placed on boys in Murphy Village.

"I had five women that came into my home and sat down and talked to me about engaging my son to their daughter," says Hart.

For how much money? "At the time it was $125,000 up to $250,000 because Bad Petie - he was like a legend in the village."

Bad Petie was Patsy's husband.

Was he ever arrested?

"Yes, quite a few times," says Hart.

For what? "Flim-flam con-artist," she says.

Did she ever confront her husband and say this is not right?

"Yes," says Hart. "I asked him why, but he said this is their way their way of life."

Patsy left the village and divorced her husband.

Wanda Mary, really a Northern Traveler who spent time in Murphy Village, admits to having had 28 aliases, running repair scams, shoplifting. She boasts of almost pulling off the most ambitious scam in Traveler history. It all started with a 911 call.

It was Halloween night, 1992 at Walt Disney World.

"The scam was for me to claim that I was beaten, robbed and raped at a hotel at Disney," says Wanda Mary.

To pull that off, she had sex with a friend. She left the rest up to her brother.

"He taped me, duct taped me to the bed and beat me up and left," says Wanda Mary.

Wanda Mary sued Disney for $3 million. Disney was about to settle for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, but with the windfall in sight, a jealous sister ratted on Wanda Mary and she ended up in jail.

Madelyne Toogood says people like Wanda Mary give all Travelers a bad name. She says in her clan, people marry for love, not money and men don't marry children. She married Johnny Toogood when she was 17.

"I should be able to live anyway I want to live and this is how I choose to live," says Madelyne. "We're just a big Irish family, we're a big huge humungous family."

It is a family that is now in the spotlight. Madelyne Toogood faces shoplifting charges in Texas, child abuse in Indiana. Her husband Johnny has a case pending in Montana for home improvement fraud.

The Toogood's daughter, Martha Jean, has been taken from them. Madelyne will only have supervised visits with the little girl who is now in the custody of her grandmother. Her grandmother is an Irish Traveler.

The travelers we've spoken to insist - and police will agree - that not all Irish Travelers are law breakers. And no one has suggested that child abuse is prevalent among them. That said, Madelyne Toogood will appear this December at a hearing on felony child abuse charges.

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