Originally created 12/08/99

Three Irish Travelers placed on probation



AIKEN -- Three Irish Travelers from North Augusta were sentenced Tuesday to probation and 200 hours of community service after pleading guilty to insurance fraud in an Aiken courtroom.

Winnie C. Riley, Bridget Sherlock and Nora Carroll admitted taking out a forged life insurance policy on a relative who had throat cancer and required a special microphone to talk. The women were trying to set up a policy enabling them to collect $25,000 once the relative died, said Michelle La Venture with the South Carolina attorney general's office.

Irish Travelers are members of a reclusive community of about 2,000 who are descended from 19th-century Irish peddlers. They live in lavish homes and mobile homes along U.S. Highway 25 near the boundary between Aiken and Edgefield counties.

Attorney General Charlie Condon has targeted Irish Travelers in the past, prosecuting members on truancy and fraud charges and publicizing indictments and convictions. Mr. Condon's office issued two news releases after Tuesday's court proceedings, both with the headline, "Irish Travelers Guilty of Insurance Fraud."

"Too many people believe the insurance companies are fair game for scams because they have so much money," Mr. Condon said. "But in the final analysis, the enormous cost of insurance fraud is borne by small policyholders who can barely afford the extra dollars."

Aiken attorney Bob Harte represented the trio in court Tuesday, saying the women had no prior criminal records and were unaware of South Carolina law.

"These ladies did not realize what they did was an illegal offense," Mr. Harte said.

In court, Ms. La Venture told Circuit Judge James C. Williams Jr. the women conspired to take out a life insurance policy on Vinnie Riley, a double first-cousin of one defendant, Ms. Riley. The women submitted the applications to Pioneer Life Insurance Co. of Indianapolis.

State officials learned of the fraud after receiving a complaint from an insurance company about the application. Ms. Riley also was convicted of filing a similar claim to Kanawha Life Insurance Co. in Lancaster.

Ms. Riley, 41, of Highway 25, pleaded guilty to two counts of presenting a false claim for payment over $5,000. Ms. Sherlock, 40, of 4-C Anthony St., pleaded guilty to presenting a false claim over $5,000. They were sentenced to five years in jail, which Judge Williams suspended before ordering two years of probation and 200 hours of community service.

Ms. Carroll, 59, of House No. 90, Mullins St., pleaded guilty to presenting a false claim for payment over $5,000. She was sentenced to four years of confinement, which was suspended to two years of probation and 200 hours of community service.

In court, the women told the judge they all were housewives. None has more than a ninth-grade education.

Earlier this year, two Irish Travelers pleaded guilty to failing to enroll their daughter in school, a plea Mr. Condon said he hoped would ensure that others in the group educate their children. John and Mary Carroll, both of North Augusta, received a suspended jail sentence after paying a fine.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.