Ties of Texas

The grainy security video has been shown ad nauseam over the television airwaves. The young blond mother exits the Kohl's store with her pigtailed little girl, walks to her white SUV and glances over her right shoulder. She then plants her child in the backseat and begins to smack her and tug on her hair for a good 30 seconds.

Madelyne Gorman Toogood became the talk of the nation in September when the 25-year-old mother surrendered to Indiana officials and revealed herself to be a member of the Irish Travelers, a secretive, transient group with a reputation among police for shady business practices or outright scams.

While the incident happened far away, the case has Texas connections: Toogood's attorney is publicity-loving former Fort Bend County prosecutor Steven "Rocket" Rosen, and several of Toogood's associates have had run-ins with the Houston police.

"We've never dealt with her here, but we've handled the Gorman clan in home-repair fraud and driveway scams," says Officer Mike Garrett of the Houston Police Department's major offenders unit. According to Garrett, the most common scheme among Irish Traveler men is offering to do work around the house, collecting money and never returning to finish the job. He says the women may shoplift or try to get cash refunds from stores for "returned" merchandise that the store never sold in the first place.

Indiana officials have admitted that Toogood was under surveillance for suspicious behavior inside the department store. Garrett wonders if Toogood could have been punishing her 4-year-old daughter Martha for not helping in some scheme.

"It could have been as easy as theft or distracting an employee," says Garrett, careful to add that his thoughts are just opinion.

But Rosen says Garrett's view is ridiculous.

"That's speculation, that's assumption, and when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me," says Rosen, who insists Toogood was just a frustrated mother pushed too far. "The video in the store will show the little girl got lost; she ripped up Barbie cases. To speculate that way is absurd."

But Rosen, who has represented Irish Travelers for more than 15 years in Houston and elsewhere, admits that the group has been known for "getting in little mixes."

The first Irish Travelers immigrated to New York from Ireland to escape the potato famine in the 1850s. Over the years they slowly moved down the Eastern Seaboard and into the southern United States, where they established home bases in several towns, including Memphis and Murphy Village, South Carolina.

There is also a contingent of about 500 Travelers based out of Tarrant County (where Toogood is wanted on a shoplifting charge at another Kohl's). But the group is mostly transient, often taking up residence in mobile-home parks.

"They travel with the seasons," says Dick Moore, a member of the National Association of Bunco Investigators. He lives in Victoria and has studied the Travelers for many years. "They come up north in the summer and back to the south in the winter. Not all Travelers are criminals, but a lot have been known to pull off different scams on the elderly, and they engage in questionable business practices."

Moore and other Traveler experts say the group, which may number several thousand across the country, is extremely close-knit and secretive. They almost always marry among themselves and speak a dialect known as Shelta or Gammon, a mixture of Irish Gaelic and English. They may not pay taxes and often take their children out of school after the seventh or eighth grade. Members don't associate with outsiders, whom they refer to as "the country people."

Texas authorities found out about the covert nature of the group in January 2000, when five members were killed after their pickup truck flipped over on Interstate 30 in Fort Worth. Investigators discovered all five boys in the truck were under the age of 14 and were carrying fake identification. Their families, who had been living in an RV park in nearby White Settlement, met just once with officers. Officer John Clapp of the White Settlement police says Travelers own four trailer parks in the town, including one about a block from the police department. They're seasonal residents, usually coming to the area in spring. Except for occasional routine problems with kids, however, the members aren't trouble for local police, despite their reputations.

"If they're involved in [crime], they don't do it here," Clapp says.

Rosen says Toogood's appearance on several television programs--including Larry King Live--was a necessary move for her to defend herself (and most likely a good move for Rosen, who has a history of high-profile cases that include defending a member of the Branch Davidian sect in 1997).

"I wanted her to apologize to the nation and to her family," he says. "I think she's doing a great job. And when I got there...there must have been 50 family members with her, and they never left her side."

Joe Livingston, an agent with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and a Traveler expert, says Rosen is part of a national network of attorneys the Travelers use when they get into legal trouble. The group also has Traveler-friendly doctors available when necessary.

"You'll find there is a network out there, and when someone is in trouble, it goes through the Traveler network in a hurry," Livingston says. Younger members also access the Internet to communicate with each other through e-mail and in chat rooms.

Despite their nomadic lifestyle, Livingston says, many Travelers are relatively wealthy and deal strictly in cash to avoid leaving a paper trail. Because they spend so much of their lives on the road, they often splurge on expensive vehicles like the SUV seen in the infamous video.

"If you notice, the vehicles are quite clean and very well maintained," he says. "When you spend up to 80 percent of your time in something, you want it to be nice."

Livingston says the Travelers also pride themselves on their cunning and wit, justifying schemes by claiming that gullible people deserve what they get. Their wily skills, distaste for violence and unusual lifestyles have been romanticized occasionally in films such as Into the West and Snatch, the latter featuring Brad Pitt as an Irish Traveler in England.

The group also has gained some reported sympathizers, including University of Texas linguistics professor Ian F. Hancock. Hancock wrote about the Irish Travelers for the Encyclopedia of the South, and The Associated Press reported that Toogood contacted him shortly after the security video began airing around the nation.

Toogood told Hancock she was afraid to surrender because of harsh police attitudes about the Travelers. Hancock has received hate mail and was branded as a supporter of Toogood, following his published quotes that "very much is being made of her ethnic background."

"I'm really tired of reporters, and I have nothing to say," Hancock wearily said when called for comment. "They assume I support child abuse, and I absolutely don't. It's crazy."

Toogood, who apologized repeatedly on television, is free on bail on a felony charge of child battery. Indiana's Child Protective Services placed her daughter with a foster family of non-Irish Travelers. Rosen says he hopes to have Martha back with her family soon.

Rosen wants to arrange a plea bargain that will get probation for Toogood.

"She's going to prove she's a loving, fit mother," Rosen says. "Let's recognize this: She's a 25-year-old, she has three kids, and the girl had a bad day and she shouldn't have hit her kid."

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Jennifer Mathieu
Contact: Jennifer Mathieu