Trailers Are for Travelers 

What were million-dollar Irish scam artists doing living in this trailer park?

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John Hay, writing from the Camp Parks federal facility in Dublin where he awaits sentencing, seems bemused by the furor law enforcement's discovery of the money caused, and the sort of wild conclusions people were drawing from it. "When we were arrested on June 12, 2002, this was a relatively minor case," he writes. "When they found bank accounts totaling almost $1 million they thought at first we were involved with the IRA, even though I am Scottish."

Hay dismisses the conjecture about the Irish Republican Army as totally baseless, as do court-appointed attorneys for Davenport and Broderick. (Davenport did not respond to a written request for an interview, and Broderick's attorney would not allow his client to be interviewed.) Although the FBI declined to comment on its own investigation into the case, and the press spokesman for the US Attorney's Office confined his remarks to vague generalities, it seems clear that neither agency found proof that the trio was using their cash to bankroll any political factions.

But what were the con artists doing with all that money? They certainly weren't spending it on their lifestyle. They lived a spartan and highly mobile existence, crossing the nation in a small caravan consisting of a silver and green Ford Econoline van, a black Subaru station wagon, and a trailer. True, the vehicles were shiny and new, and the trailer was a snappy recent model equipped with comforts such as a TV and VCR, and a slide-out side panel that expanded the size of the interior. But the accommodations were cramped and less than luxurious. The three of them lived together in the trailer, and Hay even slept on the floor. "The van was really weighted down," Granada says. "I don't know what they had in there, but it seems like it had a lot of stuff in it. I'm surprised it even pulled the trailer, it was that full." And they certainly didn't wear any fancy clothes. The worn faces and hairstyles they present in their police mug shots are redolent of lives lived on the open road, not at the day spa.

Nor did they seem to be buying themselves a life of leisure. Granada remembers that their trailer was always bustling with activity. "They were always busy, in and out," he says. "One would stay and two would go, two would stay and one would go." Broderick earned a reputation for hogging the Internet connection in the Trailer Park's front office. "She was kind of a pest," Granada laughs. On the surface, the three didn't stand out from any of the European vacationers who often rent spots in Trailer Haven's overnight section as they pass through the East Bay on summer camping trips.

Except for one thing: These travelers were always on vacation. The three have been linked to the Irish Travelers, a nomadic ethnic minority population analogous, but unrelated to, the Rom, or Gypsy, people. Throughout the world, Irish Travelers have gained notoriety for blowing into town, pulling off home improvement-based scams, and then leaving before anyone is the wiser.

There are Welsh, Scottish, and English Travelers as well, and they share a somewhat blurry history of where they came from and why they took to the road. In Ireland, various legends trace their roots back to the dispossessed of all sorts -- pre-Celtic wandering minstrels and poets; Druid priests fleeing the spread of Catholicism; farmers displaced by Oliver Cromwell's campaigns in the seventeenth century; people with nowhere left to go when the Irish potato famine hit. Historically, many Irish Travelers supported themselves as musicians and through metalworking, although the resulting "Tinker" nickname is now considered something of a racial slur. In the United Kingdom, the fate of the Travelers is an active social issue. They have their own lobbying groups pushing for better government-funded social programs, the establishment of permanent housing, investigations into ethnic discrimination, and camping sites for those who wish to take time off from the road. In general, Irish Travelers are strict Roman Catholics, and many speak a secret language loosely based on Gaelic and known as Shelta, Gammon, or Cant.

No one seems to have a very accurate count of how many Travelers currently live in the United States -- estimates range between 7,000 and 30,000 -- although it's generally believed that Travelers first began emigrating to the United States in the 1840s during the potato famine. In the United States, the Traveler population seems to be concentrated in South Carolina, Texas, and Arizona, and of those who still travel -- now often driving top-of-the-line SUVs and trailers -- many make their living doing home repair and contracting work. But despite these tidbits, the lives of Irish Travelers remain mysterious to outsiders. "They are very closed societies and they marry within their own, they stay to their own," says Kevin Mullen, librarian for San Francisco's Irish Cultural Center. "A lot of people say that they are light-fingered and duplicitous, and others say they're not." Like most itinerants in a settled world, the Travelers aroused the suspicion of townspeople throughout their history and have been the subject of hyperbolic legends. "In historical times they used to say that they'd steal babies or children," Mullen says.

Even in modern times, their association with trickery and crime has not abated. Just ask the California Contractors State License Board. The board frequently puts out warnings about Traveler-related home repair scams, many of which are perpetrated against trailer park residents and the elderly. Stuart Rind, an investigator for the board, says that the number of Traveler cases his agency investigates annually is on the rise as law enforcement grows more familiar with the prototypical Traveler scams. Every year, he says, "There are probably in the neighborhood of 25 to 50 cases that we can clearly say are Traveler-related, but we may have reports for double that amount where for one reason or another we can't make that designation."

In one of the most common cons, a group of Travelers will approach a resident, claim that they've noticed a defect in his or her roof, and offer to repair it. For emphasis, sometimes they'll sneak a squirt-bottle or sponge inside the home and, when the owner isn't looking, create a wet mark on the ceiling or floor to convince him that he has a hitherto-unnoticed leak. Then they'll offer to spray the roof with a sealant. But a resident who agrees to let them do the repairs doesn't get very much in return. "Sometimes we can prove they've done no work, just walked around on the roof for a half hour," Rind says. "Or sometimes they've sprayed latex paint."

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