Fort Worth Magazine — May 2010
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Going Without Notice
Paul K. Harral

Sometime in the late winter or early spring, men and boys from Fort Worth and White Settlement fan out across the country in search of work. They’ll be mostly gone until the late fall, when they return for the heart of the winter.

Some call them Gypsies — a term they consider derogative and factually incorrect since they bear no relationship to the Romani people. You may know them — if you know of them at all — as Irish Travellers. And the odds are that if you know of them, it is in a negative sense.

Headlines tell the story: “Irish Travelers linked to home-repair scams,” The Daily Oklahoman; “Peach County residents are advised to be wary of a potential paving scam,” The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph; “Police: Be wary of scam paving contractors,” Bangor (Maine) Daily News; and “DPS troopers warn of 'gypsy pavers' in Parker County,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

A survey of the hundreds of stories available in newspaper archives from all over the country indicates that such scams are not confined to the Travellers, identifiable mostly by their use of only a handful of surnames.

But there is no question that some among them are involved. In at least two cases since 2008, three men from Fort Worth — two with known Traveller surnames — were arrested as a result of paving scam investigations in New Jersey and Iowa.

When the Travellers are in the press, it is usually associated with an explosive or negative story and the “common knowledge” about them is repeated and recycled. What many of those reports miss is that customs may or may not be common to all Traveler groups. Any understanding of Traveller society must begin with the background and history.

The Travellers are a close-knit people, intermarrying primarily within a small number of families and bound by their own code of conduct that traces to their original Ireland and to a small group of immigrant families that entered the United States beginning in the 1840s, fleeing the Irish potato famine.

Travellers mostly go without notice by design and desire. It is when they brush up against the larger society that conflicts become known.

There are three groups in the United States — English Travellers, Scotch Travellers and Irish Travellers, all tracing their traditions to their native countries. All three are often labeled as scam artists who deal mostly in cash and who leave town before inferior workmanship and products alert the purchaser that he or she has been had.

There are few to come to their defense and they themselves are reluctant to talk to the press, citing what they consider unfair treatment in past stories. One member of the group agreed to talk but backed out.

Another contacted for this story demanded that nothing in the discussion be used, even though the conversation lasted half an hour, because “anything that has been published in Fort Worth has been garbage, and they have compared us to the people that’s in Ireland. They’re garbage. They’re beggermen. Tinkers.

We’re not those people.” Travellers have been in the Fort Worth area — originally on the North Side — for a long time. But they began to collect in White Settlement in two newly opened trailer parks in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Some call them the Texas Travellers or the Greenhorn Carrolls, separating them from two other Traveller groups in the South and from a separate group known as the Northern Travellers. But even savvy and involved residents were sometimes unaware.

James Ouzts, a former mayor and city council member in White Settlement, has lived in the city since 1972, but only became aware of the Travellers’ presence after he went on the council in 1996.

A fellow council member toured him through an RV park that had been operating in the city for years “to show me the travel trailers and very nice high-end cars and trucks.” The council was facing a zoning decision triggered by the proposed sale of two trailer parks to members of the Irish Travellers. The point was simple.

“If they drove vehicles like that and pulled trailers like that, they had to have lots of money that they were spending in White Settlement. That was my first exposure,” Ouzts said.

“I can’t say that I have ever even heard the term Irish Traveller prior to that. I’d heard terms like gypsies and things like that but never Irish Travellers,” Ouzts said.

“Ninety percent of them are great people,” says one local businessman who has been dealing with the local group for years. “Ten percent of them are rotten. But I’m sure my family makeup’s worse than that. I may be on the 50-50 part of good to rotten.” A survey of Fort Worth Police Department records for disturbance calls in west Fort Worth from January 2009 through March 2010 show that about 44 percent of the 195 calls in the business district along Clifford Street and White Settlement Road just south of the Legacy subdivision likely are linked to Travellers. Police officers based that on prior history and experience. Travellers own a number of houses in that area.

The calls mostly involve younger people and relate to disturbances in the stores and harassment of other customers. Often those calling police said they had asked the young people to leave and that they had refused. Some reported that this was an “ongoing problem.” Several reported inappropriate behavior on the part of young girls, including lifting their skirts in front of men.

One call reported that several young men were hitting baseballs in a Home Depot parking lot about 8:30 p.m. Feb. 26, 2009, and that the baseballs were hitting vehicles in the lot. Six months later, police were called to break up a fight involving about 30 people in the parking lot.

Several reported groups of young men and women darting into traffic and then jumping back and yelling and gesturing to the passing drivers. In December 2009, four calls reported disturbances and damage at the Staybridge Suites Hotel on Clifford.

Police believe that slightly more than 84 percent of residential disturbance from that subdivision over the same period of time could be linked to Travellers. Residential complaints were highest January through May in 2009, dropped sharply June through October and picked up again in November 2009 through March 2010.

Those dates coincide with the time that Traveller men and boys are traditionally in or out of town in search of work.

Residential complaints generally dealt with late night and noisy gathering in the neighborhood or its streets and loitering at nearby North Elementary School. One complained that youths were turning on exterior water at houses, banging on doors or ringing door bells and running, careless driving, blocking traffic and entering people’s property without permission.

Only four complaints dealt with residential thefts in the neighborhood and three of those involved Yellow Cab drivers who reported people refusing to pay. One fare was reported at $175.

Another involved “some kids” who “jumped out and ran w/o [without] paying.” One recent business report involved a truck repair when the owner asked to test drive the vehicle before paying and never returned. A warrant has been issued in the case.

Out in Weatherford, State Trooper John Forrest has been watching itinerant pavers — believed to be from some branch of the Travellers — since 1972 when he first came to the area. Both he and his former partner and his current one, Cpl. David Smith, consider it a cause.

The people they see typically provide shoddy work at seemingly incredible prices and leave the area quickly. They’ll offer to lay pavement at a price that’s too good to be true — and usually is.

But neither Forrest nor Smith think the people they are tracking come from the Traveller group in Fort Worth and White Settlement.

“They are transient when they come through here,” Forrest said. “They will stay with the folks in Fort Worth — they’ll stay in that park with them. But they’re not year-round residents there.”

Fort Worth Police Officer K.D. Jacobs is the NPO — neighborhood police officer — for Neighborhood Police District No. 9, also know as the Mary District, West Division. A number of known Travellers live in his district. He, too, doesn’t think local Travellers are involved in these kinds of scams in the area.

Businesses contacted for this article were reluctant to comment on the record. Local Travellers tend to be loyal customers when they come to trust someone, and they do have money to spend. But businesses ranging from stores to restaurants to golf courses report conflicts.

An example is Travis Modrall, owner of Primetime Valet, which services high-end restaurants in Fort Worth. He’d never heard of the Travellers until he got into the business.

To be fair, there were only a handful of incidents each year and none recently, but in half of the cases, his attendants would face some kind of scam — switching a $1 bill for a $10 bill on payment, or driving away without paying or claiming damage to a vehicle that had not occurred. Restaurants report similar experiences.

Travellers arrive in groups and fill the place, sometimes becoming a disruption for other customers. Managers assign senior waiters because of claims that the meal was not satisfactory and requests for no charge.

Jacobs gives an example: They might say, “ ‘This isn’t any good. I want it for free.’ Or they’ll come in and say, ‘The manager said I could have so and so free this time.’ Just doing little scams like that,” he said. “Is the presence more just a severe aggravation? The stores know that they are getting ripped off when some of the adults and kids come through,” Jacobs said.

“For businesses, it’s just the cost of doing business.” The stores may know it but they don’t or won’t or can’t talk about it. Managers of retail operations said to be targets routinely referred questions to corporate public relations departments. That doesn’t surprise Jacobs.

“Generally, everybody is afraid of retaliation,” he said. “Some of the businesses, they spend money and so the employees have to take the abuse.” In the past, Fort Worth police confrontations with known Travellers were primarily associated with calls to the city’s bars. Those have dropped off with the rise of a Traveller-owned establishment, The Silver Dollar at 2811 Cherry Lane.

“They bought that,” Jacobs said. “Treat it almost like a private club or something.” The picture that emerges of the local Traveller group shows a generational divide with businesses and residents reporting more conflict with younger members of the group — 30 and younger down to the sub-teens.

But people were reluctant to speak on the record because, as one said, “They’re kind of scary. … I’m a little afraid of them.” Traveller men — some anyway — are passionate about golf but are finding themselves welcome at fewer golf courses because of disruption and damage some have caused to equipment and the courses themselves.

“We’ve banned them pretty much,” said the manager of one golf course. “If we can catch them and recognize them, we turn them away.” This manager said that older Traveller men themselves complain about the behavior of the younger ones, saying that it has made it difficult for them to play at area golf courses.

“They come in, and they buy a lot of our merchandise,” the manager said. “They have cash and they’ll just keep throwing $100 bills up on the counter.” But at the end of the day, with damage to the course and equipment and with items missing from the pro shop, it simply isn’t worth the aggravation, the manager said.

“They’re threatening to our other golfers,” the manager said. “It lost us a lot of business, and there for a while we had a bad reputation as any golf course would that lets them on.” One owner of a high-end restaurant reported similar disruption and said that “I need butts in the seats, but I don’t need them that badly.” It is somewhat of a cultural clash as well.

Schools are a major source of acculturation in society, and nationally, Traveller groups tend to pull their children out of public school by middle school, with the boys going to work with their fathers on the road, duplicating a lifestyle the group imported from their original Ireland in the 1840s.

Mary E. Andereck, in her book Ethnic Awareness and the School, a study of a Catholic school she calls St. Jude “located in a large southern city,” noted the trend.

Andereck, who earned a doctorate at Texas A&M University in College Station, sees a reason beyond work for withdrawing both boys and girls — to maintain a chosen lifestyle without influence from the greater society.

“To Travelers,” she writes, “school experiences up to the sixth grade are not a threat to ethnicity. Their frequent decisions to remove their children after sixth grade are because of the increased threat to maintaining their ethnicity after that time.”

John M. Stygles, an Independent/Old Catholic priest and pastor with the Zacchaeus Ministries in Memphis, Tenn., notes in his book Scammed by Society, which is defensive of Travellers, comments on this concerning Travellers in his area.

“They do believe they are different, special and maybe better than non-Travellers, yet they are fearful that exposure outside their community through socialization at school or where they live could adversely impact the sanctity and peace within the community,” he writes. It is a price they willingly pay.

“They realize that as an insular community they subject themselves to unwanted scrutiny and ridicule and this has opened them up to charges of being con artists and scammers,” Stygles writes. “Yet they are willing to accept that in order to maintain what is the lifeaffirming dynamics of community.”

School attendance is difficult to document locally because of privacy issues. The White Settlement Independent School District, where the greatest concentration of Travellers would go to school, declined to comment. But some who have observed them closely in the area say that pattern exists.

“That would be true,” said Father Jim Pemberton, priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Gainesville. He previously served at St. Peter the Apostle in Fort Worth where many Travellers worship.

"Grade school is about it. I mean there are some exceptions, but the general pattern is put the kid to work.” Pemberton speaks with authority. He was born in Fort Worth in 1933 to a Traveller mother and a non-Traveller — the Travellers call them “country people” — father. Marriage outside the group is rare today. It was virtually unheard of when his mother did it. However, Pemberton doesn’t see the same fear of acculturation mentioned by Andereck and Stygles.

“I still think the primary motive is this kid is big and strong and can help me make some money.” Pemberton said. “And the kid himself, the kid doesn’t like school. So it’s an easy sell. Once the pattern was established, it just kept repeating itself.”

School attendance is mandatory in Texas for people under 18 except in certain circumstances — home schooling is one. But the burden of locating chronically absent or missing students rests with the school system, which in turn depends on cooperation from parents.

It is in part an issue of resource allocation and funding. Schools receive state money based on average daily attendance. And it is a rating issue as well. One Fort Worth high school was rated “academically unacceptable” because it was unable to find seven students, a Fort Worth school official said.

“I talked to some school administrators, and their biggest frustration was trying to plan for them, and then midway through the year they were gone, and so it became a question of resources and also school funding,” Ouzts said. “That’s what I heard, not necessarily that there were any disciplinary problems or that they were anything other than other kids were.”

For centuries in Europe and for more than a century and a half in the United States, entire families lived on the road, moving from town to town, searching for the work they needed to put food on the table. They made their living with their hands. They still do.

In Europe, they often worked in metal and were called “tinkers,” a term also fastened to the modern day itinerant workers, although those who have researched them say that they find that term offensive.

In post-Civil War America, they traded in horses and mules, particularly in a South devastated by the War Between the States.

Stygles reports that a Thomas Carroll, age 27, entered the United States on May 27, 1849, the first individual who listed “tinker” as his occupation when he entered the country. Today, they do hard, manual labor: painting, laying linoleum, pouring asphalt paving.

Law enforcement officers who study them say some within the various Travellers branches are sophisticated at running construction scams, elaborate confidence games, shoplifting and other illegal or questionable activities.

The money — from whatever source — is good, and that is shown in the vehicles the Travellers buy and drive both for work and for basic transportation and the restaurants they frequent. In fact, the vehicles are a clue for those who know what to look for.

“When they would come in, usually we could spot them, because a lot of times they would be in a white vehicle, and the vehicle would be new, and it wouldn’t have tags on it most times,” said Modrall.

“Temporary tags. Lot of times paper tags on them.” That’s something Jacobs has noticed, too, in traffic stops and other police business.

“They’ll have the tags sometimes off the old cars sometimes on the new cars,” Jacobs said. “They print their own paper tags or they’ll go buy some temporary paper tags and change the dates on it and use the tag over and over.” Ouzts also noted the vehicles, saying they stand out in what is pretty much a blue-collar town.

“I can tell you that people who are long-time residents of White Settlement don’t typically drive Mercedes-Benzes or Hummers or haul $100,000 travel trailers,” he said. “That being said, somebody can afford that, then somebody can afford that.” Some Travellers still live as their ancestors in Ireland and their forbearers who came to this country in the mid-1800s did. Then it was in horse- or mule-drawn wagons. Now it is top-of-the-line mobile homes and travel trailers.

But others have begun to buy traditional homes in the Legacy, Team Ranch, Silver Ridge and Vista West subdivisions of Fort Worth as well as in other parts of the county.

Legacy is just across Loop 820 from White Settlement and there are perhaps as many as 50 Traveller-owned houses in the area. In all, there may be 78 homes in the four subdivisions mentioned.

It’s difficult to be specific. The Travellers are not a separate ethnic group no matter how much they act like one, and no one really keeps separate records on them, including the public school system.

Mostly they are identified by their use of one of perhaps 16 common surnames although that also is problematic. The names often are traditional Irish names — Carroll, for example — and only a small percent of people bearing those names are Travellers.

The move to buy permanent property began in Legacy in 2002. Based on surnames, perhaps 36 houses were bought in 2003. The date of deed on records at the Tarrant Appraisal District shows houses were sometimes bought in groups: two on Aug. 15 and on Aug. 28; five on Aug. 29; and six on Sept. 29.

That could be a step toward something Travellers have struggled to avoid — acculturation to a surrounding society they view as hostile to their chosen lifestyle.

nationally, Traveller groups have been linked with a variety of criminal activities but it is difficult to apply that directly to the Greenhorn Carrolls.

Whether something is a “scam” or not — and criminal — is a matter of definition under what lawyers call the “principle of legality.” If the statutes do not specify that something is a criminal offense, it is not.

It is a crime to contract to deliver a specific product and then fail to do that by deception. But delivering the product agreed upon when the promised product itself is inferior doesn’t shade over into criminal activity.

The buyer accepts the risk. It may be unethical, but it is not necessarily illegal. That’s the principle of caveat emptor — let the buyer beware — and it has been in U.S. law since an 1817 decision written by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in the case Laidlaw v. Organ.

Fort Worth defense attorney Jim Shaw has represented local Travellers over the years. He says the group tends to find a lawyer it likes and come to that lawyer for everything, regardless of legal specialty.

He doesn’t remember ever having to go to court on one of the cases because “they’re so careful about what they do, the representations they make.” “Maybe they were thrown out or never got filed,” he said.

“Generally, it seems like somebody would get thrown in jail, somebody would get bonded out, I’d bond them out, we’d deal with the DA, and they really didn’t have a case against them, a lot of times. Or a very difficult case,” he said.

“A lot of times, what happens when they get in a bind, they’re ordered to do the work or pay the money, they’ll pay the money back,” Shaw said. “I think that’s the way they get out of some of these things.” Scam alerts from state governments and from law enforcement officials are routine and blossom like spring flowers in the nation’s newspapers and on local television when the traveling season begins.

No one knows exactly how many Irish Travellers there are in the United States or even how many there are in a specific location. But what is known is that in the South, there are three major colonies — Murphy Village, S.C., Memphis, Tenn., and White Settlement, on the outskirts of Fort Worth near the Bomber Plant, now Lockheed Martin.

Pemberton, who became a priest under what the church refers to as second career vocation after his wife, Joy, died of cancer in 2001, doesn’t know which group of Travellers his mother belonged to.

“I was never aware that there was any group name given to her situation,” he said. “She was a Donahue from the North Side. She was sister to Pete Donahue, the famous pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.

He had three 20-game seasons. He’d be a quadrillionaire if he were involved today.” Under criticism or scrutiny, the Traveller community withdraws into itself.

An example of the closed aspects of the clans is that the Travellers, who are devoutly Catholic, often do not celebrate First Communion or Baptism with the larger congregation. That was the experience of Father Tim Thompson, priest at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church on Cherry Lane in White Settlement a decade ago.

“They really do try to live out their faith as they see it,” said Thompson, now priest at St. Mark Catholic Church in Denton.

But the closeness of the group can make other people suspicious, he said. Then, with a pause, he asks: “So are we being tribal or are they?” There’s less introspection on the part of people who work in law enforcement.

“The general belief is that as a Traveller, if I can get something from you and you gave it to me, it’s not wrong. It’s not illegal,” said Jacobs. “Now the law says something different, but their law is not society’s law.” They have a distinct view of country people.

We’re here for the taking,” he said. “It’s very obvious.” And when Travellers get into trouble, the family gathers around.

“If you catch them – whether it’s a child or an adult – the family wants to buy them out. Pay for damages, pay for whatever. But only if you get caught,” Jacobs said.

Defenders of the Travellers argue that, as with any group of people, a few dishonest people tar the entire group with the same brush.

“All my life I’ve heard about scams associated with Travellers from other parts of the country, but I’ve never observed scams with the Texas Travellers, or the North Texas Travellers,” says Pemberton.

“The closest they’ve ever come to a scam is that they don’t do a very good job, maybe, but as far as it being scam, no.” Shaw, the Fort Worth defense attorney, agrees in part.

“I think it is unfair to group them all together as scam artists,” Shaw said. “I’m sure that many of the things they do are legitimate.” But he also sees the other side.

“I know of a group of those guys that prey a little bit on people, roofing, sidewalks, driveways and even some that even try to collect money just by their presence in this, or their demeanor,” Shaw said.

“People get scared and don’t necessarily report it either.” Dirk Moore of Dirk Moore and Associates in Houston is a former member of the Texas Department of Public Safety and considered a leading expert on Irish Travellers nationwide.

Criminals among the Travellers look at their culture as “our culture tipped upside down,” Moore said. “To them, anyone other than a Traveller is put on earth to be used by the Travellers. Their motto is ‘The gullible were put on this earth to be gulled.’ ”

“The criminal element within this group targets the elderly by turning these otherwise legitimate construction jobs into home repair scams,” he said.

Moore also works with the National Association of Bunco Investigators Inc., which he describes as a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting confidence crimes.

Law enforcement officers say that prosecution of Travellers is difficult in part because of a naming ritual the families follow that results in many members of the group having the same name.

Since so many of the names are the same, a police officer asking for Tom Carroll at a Traveller location could be met with the perfectly truthful response: “Which Tom Carroll?” “ many different multiple Ids with some of these folks with 12 or so surnames and common first names — Tom, Michael, Margaret, Mary, etc., which one of them is it?,” said Jacobs.

“You could have five or 10 born the same year with the same name.” The Travellers themselves have a solution. They use nicknames.

“We have no idea what those names are,” Jacobs said, “We don’t hear them talk to each other that way.” Perhaps the enclave concept is a good one in assessing the Irish Travellers.

They often travel in groups and generally do not associate with non-Travellers except in business relationships.

“They swarm the office,” Shaw said. “They bring everybody — momma, sister, half-sister, half-aunt, children.” And they take care of their own.

“You make a traffic stop or a call involving someone, then you’re going to have the Cadillac Escalades, the fancy trucks, everything milling around,” Jacobs said.

“They have a tremendous cell phone network,” he said. “I don’t know whether it’s just by texting or not or how they do it. But something happens, everybody knows it.” In some parts of the country, marriages are still arranged and take place very young and, because women outnumber men among the clans, the families of daughters pay a dowry to the families of eligible bachelors. The two priests who served at St. Peter the Apostle said they’d never heard of dowry payments among the White Settlement group.

“It is not a custom here,” Pemberton said. “I can assure that it is not. I’ve handled enough of the weddings to know that is not a custom.

I don’t know how that sprang up or where it sprang up but I’ve not seen it observed here.” But the girls do tend to marry young.

“That’s still true,” Pemberton said. “I would say late teens.” For the most part, the Greenhorn Carrolls had managed to keep a low-profile in the Fort Worth area until Jan. 2, 2000. That was when five young cousins were killed when their truck went out of control on Interstate 30 in Fort Worth and flipped into the path of an oncoming truck.

“That’s the first time I ever came across the Travellers,” said Jacobs, the Fort Worth police officer.

The driver of the vehicle in the 2000 fatal accident was 14 as was a passenger. One victim was 12 and three were 13, according to various news reports at the time. All carried identifications that listed them as 20 years old.

The furor of that story had hardly ended when another rocked Traveller communities across the nation.

On Sept. 13, 2002, an Irish Traveller from White Settlement named Madelyne Toogood was videotaped by a security camera outside a Kohl’s department store in Mishawaka, Ind., striking her then- 4-year-old daughter and pulling her hair in a sports utility vehicle.

The videotape was broadcast on national television. Her children were removed by Indiana authorities but returned after she took parenting classes.

In January, 2003, she pleaded guilty to battery charges in Indiana and in February, in a decision that was entered as a misdemeanor, St. Joseph Superior Court Judge William H. Albright fined her $500 and gave her a year’s probation, the South Bend Tribune reported. She regained custody of her daughter in March and was given permission to transfer her probation to Texas in June.

White Settlement ISD’s reluctance to comment is not uncommon where the Travellers are involved. Even the White Settlement police referred questions to the Fort Worth officer, Jacobs.

“I can’t tell you that 410 Cherry Lane [site of one of the Travellerowned RV parks] was a hotspot in White Settlement,” Ouzts said.

“There were a lot of areas in White Settlement that seemed to have a lot more police calls and activity than 410 Cherry Lane ever thought about.” In White Settlement, Travellers live primarily in Traveller-owned trailer parks inside fences plastered with “No Trespassing” signs. Only when Traveller families began to move into settled neighborhoods did they begin to repeatedly bump up against country people in the ordinary course of daily life.

“Whether it’s the Travellers or anybody else,” Jacobs said, “if they would just fit in and be respectful of the neighborhood, life would be better for a lot of folks, but that doesn’t seem to happen.” Hal Brown contributed to this article.