Behind the Gypsy Mystique

Editor’s note: According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “gypsy” is defined as “One inclined to a nomadic way of life.” In the following article, we intend the usage of the word Gypsy be to connote such a lifestyle. As is the case in dealing with all groups of people, we do not wish to imply that any or all people of the Gypsy culture are involved in criminal activities. In fact, the true Gypsy culture is rich in terms of positive contributions to our nation and has contributed greatly to our world.

By G. Andrew Nagel and Russell B. Merlette

From the time a Gypsy child is old enough to hear stories, he is told the tale about the young Gypsy boy who saved the life of Jesus. The folklore tells of four nails made by a local craftsman that were to be used in the crucifixion: one for each of Jesus’s hands, one for his feet and the fourth, a nail of gold, for his heart. Late at night, the young Gypsy hero stole the golden nail – so when the crucifixion took place the next day, only the nails for the hands and feet remained. The tale ends with God appearing to the young Gypsy boy and telling the child that his act of thievery had saved Jesus from having a nail plunged through his heart. To repay the young boy for his deed, God then conveyed to the boy’s people (the Gypsies) the right to steal, with no moral consequences, forever and ever.

Most law enforcement or investigative personnel have worked Gypsy cases at one time or another. But there is much about the culture that bears telling, things that make it easier to understand the people behind the crimes.

There are at least four specific groups of people that are collectively referred to as (albeit erroneously) Gypsy. While many trace their roots to Eastern Europe, a large group come from other parts of the world. These are not the true ethnic Gypsies. Members of one such group, the Travelers, for instance, are predominantly Irish, English or Scottish and “look” very American. Travelers are NOT ethnic Gypsies (though they are commonly referred to as such.) The confusion with ethnic Gypsies is probably attributable to the nomadic lifestyle of the Travelers.

These Gypsies usually have very American sounding names: Sherlock, Riley, Carroll, Williamson, etc. This group generally involves itself in home repair scams – with insurance schemes solely a sideline and financial crimes (such as check schemes or credit card scams) a rarity. They tend to stick to the types of crime they know well and seldom venture into other activities. The Travelers move around the country, preying on the elderly, doing shoddy repair jobs on roofs, wiring, driveways, etc. They are migratory in their criminality, living out of travel-trailers or motel rooms, and hitting a new area as soon as things start to heat up where they’ve been working. They move, as do many migrant populations, with the weather. On trips where the women accompany their husbands, significant increases in shoplifting and similar financial crimes may be noted. Often, however, the men travel alone and the women and children remain behind.

One area entirely populated by members of the Irish Travelers is Murphy Village, South Carolina. Homes are lavish, often paid for in cash, and seldom valued at less than many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Furnishings are elaborate, although doors are never opened to strangers or curiosity seekers. This group of Travelers believes in “compliance” and will try to avoid altercations with government. For instance, families often file income taxes in a timely fashion so as not to call undue attention to themselves. Commonly, the wage-earner will profess that he earned cash from repair work throughout the year and will declare a whopping $25,000 in income – when in reality his take was closer to $250,000. Since the earnings are wholly untraceable, federal authorities are hard pressed to dispute the claimed figure and rarely become involved in enforcement actions.

The Travelers are often referred to as Gypsies – not only because of their nomadic lifestyle, but because of their less-than-honorable methods of earning money. Each group of Travelers is known for preferring certain scams.

The English Travelers, with last names such as Stanley, Boswell or Broadway, often involve themselves in the asphalt business. They pave driveways and resurface parking lots using materials that look fine when applied but which quickly wash away with the first rain. By the time the victim realizes the shoddiness of the work product, the English Travelers and the victim’s money are long gone. Of the three groups, only the English look anything like real Gypsies (dark hair and complexions) because they are actually descendants of Rumanian Gypsies who migrated into Europe long ago. They have come to the USA in small groups  over the last hundred years.

The Irish Travelers earn their way by painting barns and houses. They’ll also do roof work, and again, the victim does not realize he’s been had until the workers are far away. It is estimated that there are about 3,000 active Irish Travelers in the US. They began arriving in the US during Ireland’s potato famine in the mid 1800s. The Irish Travelers have settled in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi.

The Scottish Travelers, including the well-known Williamson clan, are the most notorious of the groups. They make most of their money in waterproofing and seal coating. The Scottish Travelers have begun setting up enclaves all over the USA. Between 25 and 250 Travelers will settle into an area, either establishing a new community or taking over an existing one. Originally centered in the Cincinnati area, the Scottish Travelers have since moved into Arizona, Southern California and Florida.

But the Travelers are only one branch of the people that are referred to as Gypsies. The true Gypsies are collectively known as the Rom, although even this “lumping” can be misleading. For purposes of this article, the group includes the Yugoslavian Gypsies (who arrived in the US in the mid-70s), the Rumanian Gypsies, the Russian Gypsies, the Polish Gypsies, the Hungarian  Gypsies, etc. Strictly as a matter of simplification, one might collectively consider the Rom as the American Gypsies.

An experienced law enforcement investigator will often instinctively know which sub-group a Gypsy criminal belongs to solely by the description of the crime. Consider the European Gypsies of Yugoslavian descent. This group generally dresses most like what we perceive to be Gypsy dress: long flowing skirts, bangles and bright colors. They are known for store diversion robberies, using illusions to create total confusion. A favorite target is a roadside 7-11 or Mom-and-Pop type store. A group of about a dozen people will pour into the store all at once. They will suddenly be everywhere, gathering up small snack items to buy, asking inane questions, lining up at the register, even occasionally having fistfights with one another. The commotion is intended to act as a distraction, because when they suddenly leave, just as quickly as they came, the store’s cash deposit bag has mysteriously disappeared along with them.

This group does not often plan out its crimes in advance; it tends more toward mood-of-the-moment wrongdoing. In one often-told case, a van full of about eight Gypsies pulled a store diversion robbery and then quickly drove away from the scene … only to run out of gas within one block of the store.

The Polish Gypsies have a very specific crime – they steal jewelry, silverware and other such valuables in daytime home burglaries. They are known for their boldness, often entering the home through a back door or window when the owners are sitting on the front porch. In a well-publicized case about two years ago in McClain, Virginia (an area of very exclusive homes), Alexander Haig’s wife was working on her garden in the front of their home at the same time it was broken into from the rear. In a very short time, $64,000 worth of jewelry was stolen. The culprits were believed to be Polish Gypsies.

Last, but most certainly not least, is the group of Gypsies collectively referred to as Rom Gypsies by law enforcement – mostly the Rumanians, Hungarians, etc. These are the people who are involved in insurance frauds, check schemes, credit card schemes and the like. They are the palm readers, the fortune tellers and the sweetheart swindlers. They are bunco artists extraordinaire. In most cases they are second or third generation Americans and have a Gypsy-like appearance. They are usually brown- or black-eyed and have a dark, almost Middle Eastern, complexion.

But even within this group there exists some confusion as to certain sub-groups. One example is the Hungarian Gypsies – who do not like to be confused with the Rumanian Gypsies, considering themselves in a far higher social class. The Hungarians Gypsies almost always purchase homes and have roots in a particular place  or area (even though they remain nomadic), while the Rumanians may or may not have a city or place to call home. Many prefer being true nomads, pulling up roots and continually moving around. Others, like their Hungarian counterparts, will maintain a home base.

With those who opt to remain entirely transient, it would not be unusual to find a house devoid of almost all furnishings. There might be a small table, a folding chair or two and a mattress on the floor. This allows the family to be instantly mobile and to move with no warning, often abandoning the minimal furnishings when they go. To those who opt for a real home, furnishings are often ornate, with many expensive items displayed throughout the residence.

To a Gypsy, crime is just another business, one that has costs associated with it just like any other. Any large metropolitan area that supports a Gypsy population will invariably have law enforcement officers who specialize in solving crimes resulting from the work of that population. They become known to members of the Gypsy community as The Gypsy Cop, and the so-designated officer might find himself invited to some of the weddings, feasts and other celebrations. Such officers become expert at identifying, many times by individual or family, who is responsible for a particular crime. For instance, a report comes in describing a woman in her early thirties, walking through a neighborhood with a 4- or 5-year-old female, long-haired child. She asks that the child be allowed to use the restroom in one of  the neighborhood homes, and only later does the homeowner discover his or her wedding ring missing. The officer may instinctively know exactly who the culprit was. In such a case, it is not uncommon for the officer to speak to the family patriarch and tell him that while there is no direct proof, things would be much “easier” if the items in question were immediately returned. In this instance, the return of the items is simply a cost of doing business – you win a few, you lose a few – and the missing ring will be returned anonymously to the rightful owner within a matter of hours.

These Gypsy Cops, with their extensive knowledge can prove exceedingly beneficial to those in the investigative community. But how to identify that officer? Picking up the phone and calling the National Association of Bunco Investigators (NABI) at 410-752-8150 is the first step. If NABI Director, Jon Grow, isn’t able to help, nobody can. Grow will profess not to be an expert; however, he has an amazing command of the existing problems and the people who can best help with solutions. If the problem is in Florida, he may direct the caller to John Wood in Pinnelas County. If it’s in the Carolinas, he’ll probably say that Joe Livingston is the best bet. Texas? Grow will point toward Houston’s Sgt. Roy House, of course – and if it’s a California problem, no question about it, one of the finest minds, he’ll divulge, is that of Greg Ovanessian with the SFO PD. (Can’t reach Greg? Try Fay “Rat Dog Dick” Faron of the Rat Dog Dick Detective Agency in SFO or JJ Green with the California DOI.) Many a case has been solved by simply knowing who to call.

Rom Gypsy culture tends to be fascinating. Individuals often lack any formal education, and it is not unusual to find that they are unable to either read or write. This is due in part to the fact that the children rarely attend school. True Rom Gypsies want nothing to do with organized society, especially with a school and its administrator breathing down the family’s necks and monitoring the child. (Alternatively, Travelers may attend school two to three months a year through about the eighth grade, learning only what they need to read, write and do basic math.)

When a Rom female becomes engaged, her family is paid a price, sort of a dowry, and when the marriage takes place, she is assimilated into the husband’s family. Her “skills” and earning abilities then belong to the husband’s people, so naturally, the better she is at her trade, the more money is paid to her family. If she has been trained to steal jewelry and is exceedingly good at it, her price is significantly higher because her future earnings will become the property of the new family. It’s akin  to buying a business; the purchase price is based on the probability and best monetary estimate of future profits.

Once the price has been paid and the couple marries, they are expected to remain together. In cases of divorce, when the woman returns to her original family, problems ensue. Usually, situations of this type are settled by meetings called “krises.” Such gatherings are held to deal with matters of Gypsy justice;  sometimes elders come from hundreds of miles away to sit in on these tribunals. When a couple splits up, the krises will decide upon a workable arrangement between the two families and determine the terms of a partial pay-back.

While Gypsies are seldom violent with outsiders, there is a great deal of physical violence within their own ranks, directed against one another. This often happens due to long-running family feuds that exist within the Gypsy communities. Rarely can a wedding take place without a fight breaking out during the ceremony or reception. While those fighting may be invited guests, they may also be gate-crashers – other Gypsies who want nothing more than to embarrass the family putting on the wedding. If there is actual bloodshed or if ambulances are called, so much the better. Fist-fighting and bashing one another over the head is almost a ritual for these people.

This cultural nuance explains why so many Gypsy claimants dealing with insurance companies have broken noses, broken teeth, etc. For while the injury may indeed be pre-existing, the individual has learned how to capitalize on the injury and make continuing claims. One California woman, “lucky” enough to have sustained a compression fracture to her back many years ago, has made a fine living of falling down in fast food restaurants, then being taken to the hospital and examined. X- rays will reveal the compression fracture and the claim will be filed. In cases where the adjuster is not familiar with the specifics of a compression fracture (in short, virtually impossible to sustain in a slip and fall), an immediate settlement may be offered. Should that occur, the lady is off and running with the money. Others have  reaped the same rewards from noses or teeth broken long ago.

In any scam, be it insurance or financial, it is rare for a Gypsy to work alone. In almost all documented cases, they work in teams of two or more. A recent well- publicized Florida case, in which the Disney Corp. was sued, centered around allegations that a young lady was beaten up and raped by an intruder who had gained access to her room at a Disney-owned hotel. Within mere hours of the time $1.4 million was to be paid in damages, the plot fell apart when the woman’s sister, upset because the settlement check would not be entirely her own, but would be split three ways, told authorities it was a scam. In reality, the attack was planned and the brother had pummeled the younger sister to make it appear that the alleged intruder had caused her great bodily harm. The once-bloodied and battered Wanda Mary Burke Normile would later admit to authorities and the world that the entire incident was planned and staged solely for monetary purposes. She dismissed the brutal beating at the hands of her brother, Jimmy, by saying, “It was necessary to pull off the scam, so I just laid there and let him beat me. We had to make it look real.” The entire story, plus many other aspects of Gypsy life in the Travelers clan, are covered in a book by Don Wright. (SCAM – Inside America’s Con Artist Clans. 1-800-272-5518.) Wanda Mary’s story is extremely sad because Jimmy suffered from AIDS and wanted, more than anything, to be remembered when he died for pulling the biggest scam ever. Within the Gypsy culture there is an inherent honor in such an achievement, one that non-Gypsies simply cannot comprehend.

Another (kind of) resource to enable fuller understanding of the Gypsy culture is a book called “32 Cadillacs” written by Joe Gores and published by Mysterious Press/Warner Books, Inc. in New York. The book tells the tale of a Gypsy family that, using a check-fraud scam, obtains enough money to go out and purchase 32 Cadillacs. It’s a humorous read that entertains as it educates.

Gypsies speak a language known as Romany. There is no written version of this language, only a spoken version. It is derived from a combination of Indo-European languages (from various areas where Gypsies have lived over the centuries) with a somewhat heavy overlay of Greek.

Gypsies are experts at disguise. A theatrical people, they often rely on their innate ability to change their appearance on demand. The women, especially, often depend on exactly this ability to avoid detection and/or eventual prosecution. While committing a crime against an elderly person for instance, the woman may be without make-up, wear baggy clothes and appear to be in her late 40s. After the arrest, when she becomes part of a lineup, she dresses nicely, adorns herself with jewelry and skillfully applies make-up. Voila! From a dowdy, swarthy 50-year-old, she magically transforms herself into an attractive 25-year-old. Many Gypsies have an inborn chameleon ability when survival is at stake. Many highly seasoned officers have looked through mug books and been unable to identify certain individuals by their pictures.

Names also often cause confusion. Both Rom Gypsies and Travelers tend to name their children after family members. Consider that Dino Adams and Danny Adams are the sons of Tony Adams. When Dino gets married and has three sons of his own, he may well name them Dino, Danny and Tony. And when Danny Adams gets married and has three sons, they will also be named Dino, Danny and Tony. While it’s not believed that this is intentionally done to later confuse authorities, the effect is ultimately the same. Each extended family may have four or five members with the same name. They do not generally use “Jr.,” “Sr.,” or “I,” “II,” and “III,” preferring to exactly duplicate the name. Repeating names is a way to honor both the living and the dead.

The Rom tend to carry very common names. In many cases they have shortened and simplified a multi-syllable European name. Once again, this is an attempt to blend in and not call attention to themselves. For additional information specific to Gypsy naming traditions, please refer to the “It’s All in a Name” column in the August/September 1996 issue of The John Cooke Financial Fraud Report.

Investigators will find an inordinate number of Gypsies who list their date of birth as January 1. So not only may there be five Danny Adams in one extended family, but two or three of them may have January 1 birthdays. Is this a fluke? Hardly. The reason for the abundance of first-day-of-the-year birthdays is that home births may not be registered for many years (remember, many Gypsies purposely avoid traceability) and when they do eventually get around to filling out the necessary forms, the true date of birth is often forgotten, so they choose the first day of the year in which the child was born. While this still occasionally occurs, it is far less common than it was 40 or 50 years ago.

Both Rom and Travelers are extremely talented at assuming other names when it suits their purpose. Pickpocketing a purse or wallet and using the identification is not unusual – neither is visiting the local graveyards and assuming the identity of a long-dead distant relative. They are also becoming increasingly adept at manufacturing false identification, using technologically advanced products (computers, copiers, printers, etc.) to achieve good results. One particular error that they  commonly make, however, is in printing bogus social security cards or driver’s licenses showing a first name, middle initial and last name. (Think about it; how often is a Federal or State agency going to drop the middle name on an official identification document and use only a middle initial?)

Despite the number of crimes attributed to Gypsies each year – it is estimated that the US Gypsy population is directly responsible for $1.5 billion dollars in varying forms of thievery each year – there remains much confusion about who these people are and exactly how they work. The enforcement community has been bombarded with myths over the years and it sometimes becomes difficult to separate the facts from the fictions. But that is one of the weapons specifically employed by the Gypsies – confusion.

One thing that is certainly not a myth, however, is that thievery is a lifestyle to those Gypsies who choose it. It is as natural to them as eating, breathing or washing your face in the morning.

As the young child is told in the bedtime story about Jesus, there is no sin in thievery if you are a Gypsy. It is the gift that God granted the Gypsy people in exchange for the young Gypsy boy’s stealing the golden nail so that it would not be plunged into the heart of Jesus.

G. Andrew Nagel is an insurance defense attorney in Southern California. He can be reached at 310-986-9747.

Russell B. Merlette is a Southern California investigator. He can be reached at 714-289-7779.

© Copyright 1997 Alikim Media

© 2012 John Cooke Fraud Report

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