WASHBURN, N.D. — Officials have charged two people described as “Irish Travellers” in racketeering and other felony charges for targeting ranchers and other rural residents in construction fraud, with one victim alleged to have been scammed of $1.89 million.

State and county law enforcement investigators on Jan. 17 in McLean County District Court filed papers charging Sean Patrick Gorman, 26, and Bartley Gorman Jr., 55, with various Class B and Class C felonies.

Sean Patrick and Bartley Gorman Jr. both were charged with a Class B felony — illegally conducting an enterprise and a Class C felony, exploitation of an “eligible adult.” An "eligible adult,” means someone 65 years or older, or could be someone with a disability. In addition, Sean Patrick Gorman also was charged with attempted theft of property, another Class B felony. Each Class B felony carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Class C felonies are five years in prison.

As the affidavit was filed, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued a cease and desist order against the two men on Jan. 17 and “as many of the aliases as we can determine,” he said.

“It’s unbelievable,” Stenehjem said. “This is the most widespread example of consumer fraud in the construction realm that we’ve seen — a traveling group of people who roam the country to scam people.”

The attorney general said he hoped publicity would help alert “likely victims” to contact his office, at 800-472-2600. He said it may be hard to get people’s money back but he wants to make sure any victims, or potential victims, are aware.

In addition to the rancher allegedly out $1.89 million, the investigation found a number of separate five- and six-figure frauds.

In the affidavit, North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent Matt Hiatt and McLean County detective Aaron Matties write that the Gormans are part of a larger, long-standing organized crime group called “Travellers,” “Irish Travellers,” “The Irish Mob,” or the “White Gypsies.” (Traveller with the double “l” is the British English spelling of the word.) The investigators say the two previously were involved in a widespread roofing scam that members of the group perpetrated on elderly people in Oklahoma.

In North Dakota, Hiatt and Matties said the Gormans and their Gorman General Contracting company, based in the Minot area, carried out a “pattern of racketeering activity,” and used “deception and intimidation” to extort victims in home and ranch construction projects.

According to the complaint, they repeatedly would “just show up” and start working, demanding payments that third-party experts deemed “exorbitant in relation to the work or supplies.” The poor quality work would often lead to future projects and extortion. In other instances, they would show up and offer a low price for projects and later escalate the costs.

Hiatt and Matties say the Travellers “appear to be focusing on elderly victims, in home and ranch construction projects.” Victims include Native American elders. According to the court documents, if the victim pays once, the Gormans re-appeared to “bleed more money” out of their victims.

In McLean County, three elderly victims are identified by initials in court documents:

  • R.S. — In 2012, a “group of people” showed up at the home and started putting on siding and a roof. R.S. wrote $82,000 in checks to “J. Gorman” and to “Sean Gorman.”

In 2018 and 2019, Sean Gorman showed up again and did more work. R.S. wrote him checks for $11,000, $14,000 and $17,000.

McLean County’s State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson hired a third-party construction expert who verified the work as “very poor quality and needed to be repaired and redone.” On Oct. 9, 2019, Erickson charged Sean Patrick Gorman with construction fraud and exploiting an eligible adult. A trial in that case is slated for March 5, 2020. After their jail mugs were published in the news media, two other alleged victims — J.Z. and D. J. — recognized the photos, leading to a wider inquiry.

  • J.Z. — In 2017, a man named Patrick Gorman came to the home of J.Z., a 57-year-old widow in McLean County. Gorman offered to put asphalt on her driveway and in an outbuilding for $10,000 to $15,000.

After completion, Patrick Gorman told J.Z., she owed $65,000 for the job. J.Z. told Patrick Gorman she didn’t have the money. Instead, Patrick Gorman took her horse trailer “as a $20,000 down payment” and told her she still owed $40,000. J.Z. withdrew $40,000 from her bank account and paid Patrick Gorman. The work had cracks and weeds growing in it in a “short time,” J.Z. told investigators.

On June 12-13, 2019, another man — Sean Patrick Gorman — appeared. He began applying or repairing asphalt on the driveway. Initially, J.Z., thought he was doing warranty work on the 2017 poor quality work that Gorman General Contracting previously had done. Sean Patrick Gorman and his crew started working and, when the work was half-done, he entered J.Z.’s house and demanded she pay $65,000. She refused and was “furious.” Gorman then demanded she relinquish a Camaro automobile and a camper as a “down payment.” J.Z. refused and “fled her house through a window” and drove away. When she returned home, Gorman and his crew were gone.

  • D.J. — On May 10, 2019, Sean Patrick Gorman and Bartley Gorman Jr. arrived at the home of D.J., a 95-year-old widow in McLean County offering to do roof repair. D.J. and a daughter had looked on the homeadvisor.com website for someone to do roof and roof vent repair. D.J. paid $6,700 for work that experts later deemed was fraudulent.

More ND victims

During their investigation into the McLean County cases, Hiatt and Matties learned of other alleged victims in other counties. They listed those victims in some cases without specific counties:

  • In 2016, Gorman General Contracting billed an elderly man for $78,500 for fraudulent construction work. After a sheriff’s deputy confronted the Travellers, they repaid the man and the matter was closed.

  • In 2018, Gorman General Contracting contracted to foam-insulate a garage for an elderly man in a small town. The man wrote checks totaling $185,000.

  • On July 5, 2018, Robert Bartley Gorman, Fort Worth, Texas, and two others approached C.M., age 75, living alone rural in Billings County. Robert Bartley Gorman and two others advised her she had “loose shingles on her roof.” For $3,200, Gorman would apply “some spray” to secure them and provide insulation. C.M. gave them a check for $21,000 but realized she’d been scammed and canceled the check. “Robert Bartley Gorman” was convicted on Nov. 6, 2018, of criminal mischief for damage to C.M.’s roof, Erickson said.

$1.9M fraud

The largest fraud Hiatt and Matties describe in the affidavit involves a 70-year-old widower rancher in an oil producing county. They describe the rancher as living alone in a secluded modest older ranch house in the North Dakota Badlands.

The man contracted with the Travellers for construction work in 2019. The victim expected some of the work to be “free” but the Travellers later billed him for it. He wrote a series of checks totaling over $1.89 million:

  • $242,000 and $130,000 to Sean Patrick Gorman for lightning rod and spray work.

  • $138,500 and $70,000 to Peter Toogood for clearing gravel and spraying sealant. (“These two checks were endorsed to be paid to ‘Ann Gorman’,” Erickson notes.)

  • $246,000 to Patrick Gorman for lightning rod work, performed by “Andy Lee.”

  • $219,000 and $170,000 to John Gorman for “lightning cable work, also completed by Andy Lee, and spot-spraying foam insulation on his house and an outbuilding.

  • $50,000 to John Lovell, for clearing gravel and spraying sealant on asphalt.

  • $150,000 and $111,200 to James Costello for removing and replacing concrete.

  • $75,000 to William Riley for asphalt sealant.

  • $294,000 for lightning rod and spray work.

When interviewed by Special Agent Hiatt, the victim had a Gorman General Contracting business card with “Bud Jr.” on it, and identified a photo of Sean Patrick Gorman as “Bud.” When offered photos of the Travellers being investigated, the victim identified some but said he knew them by other names, or “altered” names, that mixed first and last names.

Once, when Hiatt was meeting with the victim, a Traveller called on the phone. The victim handed the phone to Hiatt, who identified himself as law enforcement. The Traveller quickly hung up.

The next day the victim called Hiatt to say that the Traveller had offered to pay back $75,000 because “he just found out he (the Traveller) was being scammed by the others.”

The rancher told Hiatt the Travellers had a woman identifying herself as “Kathy Stevenson” repeatedly call and flirt with the victim, and made him believe she wanted a romantic relationship. The Traveller described “Kathy” as a flight attendant. The rancher told investigators the Travellers employed “online dating techniques” on the rancher to complement their construction scam.

Starting young

Included in the court documents is a South Carolina federal sentencing brief, filed Dec. 3, 2018, in a case of massive frauds committed by “Travellers.”

In that brief, officials say the group claims to be descendants of Irish immigrants from the 1800s. The federal prosecutor wrote that Travellers are found throughout the nation but have three large “camps.” There is the “Murphy Village,” a community of 2,500 to 4,000, near Augusta, S.C.; the “White Settlement” at Fort Worth, Texas; and “Oakhaven,” near Memphis Tenn. According to the documents, the men in the North Dakota case are associated with the Texas group.

Authorities described the Travellers as an insular group. They speak in a pigeon English/Gaelic dialect called “Cant” or “Kant,” allowing them to communicate in the presence of non-Travellers or “country people.”

Children are often removed from school between fifth and eighth grade, which has the effect of making children dependent on the community. They sometimes hire “outsiders” to take exams that allow for homeschooling, to avoid laws that require schooling for children.

Legitimate or scam work allows the community to “put food on the table,” and fund life insurance premiums for policies that are the major source of income.

Boys go to work with fathers, who often sell tools or flooring door-to-door or doing painting or asphalt work.

Girls start coming of age at their first holy communion party, at age 7 or 8. The girl’s family sometimes provide dowries, including life insurance policies, often providing the proceeds or gifting a policy on someone who is “thought to be short for the world.”

Life insurance

Life insurance scams are common money-earners for these groups. North Dakota authorities cited no evidence of that in this state, but cited examples of it elsewhere.

In one case, South Carolina authorities found an 85-year-old woman with 52 policies and 30 Traveller beneficiaries, even though she was childless. Another man, also childless, had 27 insurance policies listing children as beneficiaries.

Hiatt and Matties wrote that one problem with detecting Traveller life insurance scams is that neither the insured person nor their relatives may know that a life insurance policy was placed on them — even after they die and the Travellers collect the insurance proceeds.