When a man was found dead in a Houston-area motel room of apparent natural causes in January, police figured it would be an open-and-shut investigation.
Notify the next of kin. Order an autopsy. Case closed.
But every step taken by Brookshire police Sgt. J. Garner came with a twist.
An Oklahoma ID found among the dead man’s few belongings identified him as Bernard Joseph Gorman. The home address it listed, however, was for a UPS store.
A prepaid cellphone found in the room — with only one saved number — would eventually lead Garner to the man’s relatives, who were reluctant to answer the sergeant’s questions.
And most surprisingly, about 30 minutes after meeting with the family, Garner received a call from police in the Tarrant County suburb of Colleyville.
“Hey, do you have a dead guy in a motel room down there?” Garner recalled the Colleyville sergeant asking him. “I was like, ‘What the hell does Colleyville have to do with a dead guy down here?’”
He learned that the man — whose fingerprints identified him as Gerard Joseph Gorman — was suspected of murder in Colleyville, the city’s first homicide in 23 years.
Colleyville police say Gerard Gorman and his 26-year-old son, Bernard — whom relatives dubbed “Joe” and “Little Joe” — stalked and killed Anita Fox, an elderly Alvarado housekeeper who was slain as she worked in a Colleyville home Sept. 23.
Little Joe Gorman was arrested last month in Florida and now sits in a Tarrant County Jail cell, charged with murder.
Police say that greed was the motive, that the Gormans planned to collect on a $1 million life insurance policy in Fox’s name.
While a state and federal investigation into the insurance fraud continues, the Star-Telegram has learned that the Gormans are Irish Travellers, a secretive and nomadic ethnic group whose members often garner their wealth by doing dubious repair work and executing scams — and by taking out exorbitant life insurance policies on one another.
Travellers have long resided in Tarrant County, and the two suspects have ties to this area, as well as affiliations in Orlando, Fla., and Houston. Most recently, father and son were living in the Houston area.
And Fox, sources told the Star-Telegram, had her own Traveller ties.
Steven Rocket Rosen, a prominent Houston attorney who has represented Irish Travellers for decades, has been retained by the family to defend Little Joe Gorman. Rosen worked on another high-profile Traveller case in 2002, when Madelyn Gorman Toogood was caught on camera beating her 4-year-old daughter outside a store in Indiana.
“I have, I believe, a good relationship with them,” Rosen said. “I have always been honest and forthright with them. A lot of them are very hard workers. There are some that are scammers and schemers. I’m not going to lie to you.
“I’m not here to judge people. I’m here for one thing: walk into a courtroom and present the best possible defense that I have available to my client.”
He called the Colleyville case one of the strangest he has seen in his 34-year career.
“We’re not guilty, and I’ll say that from Day One,” Rosen said.
Larry Moore, chief of the criminal division of the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, said that a grand jury investigation has been underway for weeks and that multiple witnesses have been subpoenaed to testify.
Moore said he sought the grand jury investigation because of the unusual nature of the murder case, including the possibility of insurance fraud and the involvement of other parties.
“It’s a very involved case. There’s a lot of people whose names have come up in the investigation, and sorting through it takes time,” Moore said.
‘A beautiful soul’
Colleyville’s Marcia Cruce was looking for a housekeeper about six years ago when the owner of the salon where she has her hair done recommended Fox.
“The owner went to church with her, and she gave me her name,” Cruce said. “That is how we got hooked up.”
Cruce said Fox cleaned her house twice a month — dutifully driving the 40 miles from the RV park where she lived in Alvarado to Cruce’s house in a tree-filled neighborhood in northwest Colleyville.
“She was a beautiful soul,” Cruce said. “She was the sweetest woman.”
On Sept. 23, Cruce said, she left her home about 10 minutes before Fox arrived to meet a friend for lunch. She had just sat down at the restaurant when she received a frantic phone call from a neighbor.
“She said, ‘Your maid was killed at your house,’” Cruce recalled. “I ran out the door and shook all the way home while I was driving. When I arrived, they had the streets blocked off.”
Cruce said a woman who tends to the plants at her home had found Fox dead. The woman ran outside and was intercepted by her neighbor.
“My neighbor drove up and saw her, and that is when she called me,” Cruce said. “Both of them were wondering if I was in the house. … It was traumatic.”
Police found Fox lying in a pool of blood in the entryway. An autopsy report shows that she had seven stab wounds to her chest, back and head, as well as head trauma.
The worker who found Fox’s body told police that she had seen a short, fat man with an orange bucket leave the Cruce house as she arrived. She said the man got into a tan pickup with a black ladder rack. A second man was driving.
She gave a detailed description of the suspect, and a composite sketch was released to the media.
Cruce said Fox was a woman of faith who was devoted to her children and grandchildren. Cruce met many of Fox’s relatives, some of whom had been to her house.
“She talked about them all the time,” Cruce said. “Whenever she talked, it was always about the kids and the grandkids. She would talk about the trips that they went on. They all went on a Disney cruise that they really enjoyed. There were a bunch of them.”
Melinda Trail, one of Fox’s granddaughters, described her as “the backbone in our family.”
“She is missed dearly,” Trail wrote in a message to the Star-Telegram. “Words could never describe how much.”
A ‘monster’ policy
It was Fox’s family that delivered crucial information that would lead police to the Gormans.
One relative told police that in the days before Fox’s death, he’d spotted a pickup with a black ladder rack at various places, including outside a business she cleaned in Cleburne, at a Joshua convenience store and in his neighborhood. Suspicious, he had his wife snap a picture of the pickup on her cellphone, and they provided it to police.
Police tracked the truck’s license plate to Little Joe Gorman.
Colleyville Police Chief Michael Holder acknowledged that it was coincidental that one of Fox’s relatives provided the vital clue. “I think that is a product of the suspects not being as smart as they thought,” Holder said.
Two days later, police got another break.
A different relative who initially denied that Fox had life insurance later admitted to Colleyville police that he did have a policy on Fox and that it was a “monster,” according to an arrest warrant affidavit.
The owner and beneficiary of that policy, however, had been transferred in 2013, the affidavit says.
The new beneficiary was a brother of Joe Gorman’s. The two brothers, along with two other relatives, were each paying $700 a month to maintain the policy, the affidavit says.
In October, authorities found Little Joe Gorman’s pickup at an RV park in Harris County. He was later stopped for traffic violations, arrested on an unrelated warrant and questioned in the case. He initially lied to investigators about his whereabouts around the time of the murder.
In a January follow-up interview, after being presented with evidence found in cellphone records, Little Joe Gorman admitted to investigators that he and his father had been tailing Fox. He said that he took his father to the Colleyville home on the morning of Sept. 23 and that when his father emerged, he had blood on his arm.
He said the men returned to the Houston area, stopping at a gas station along the way so Joe Gorman could clean up.
Three days after Little Joe Gorman talked with authorities, Joe Gorman was found dead in the motel room in Brookshire, west of Houston on Interstate 10.
Gorman’s death ‘natural’
Holder said he is not aware of anyone trying to collect on Fox’s policy.
Garner, the Brookshire police sergeant, said that when the elder Gorman was found dead, he had little cash.
“He had $55 on him to pay the bill at the motel that night, and $35 more was found in his pocket by me,” Garner said. “Past that, it was just loose change in the bottom of his duffel bag.”
Joe Gorman’s wife, Catherine Mary Gorman, told Garner that her husband was a contract painter who traveled often for his job but had only an ID card because he did not drive himself.
The family claimed to know nothing about the Chevrolet Silverado found parked outside Gorman’s motel room, which Garner later determined had incorrect paper tags and had been reported stolen in Houston.
Garner said motel surveillance video shows that Joe Gorman had driven and parked the truck at the motel.
“You couldn’t see the door, but there was nothing to suggest that anybody else had been in that room,” Garner said.
Despite rumors that Joe Gorman’s death was suspicious, Garner said he doesn’t believe it.
The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences ruled Gorman’s death natural, caused by cardiovascular disease with obesity as a factor.
“To the best of my knowledge and everything I’ve found so far, it looks like it was a natural death,” Garner said. “I think that the only thing the family was truthful about was this guy had an enlarged heart and was suffering from some heart disease that he wouldn’t take care of.”
Almost two months after Joe Gorman’s death, Garner said he still receives inquiries on the case.
A few weeks ago, he said, a Houston-area justice of the peace called to say that the family was trying to collect on a $1 million insurance policy on Joe Gorman. The justice of the peace, Garner said, was reluctant to issue a death certificate because of questions about Joe Gorman’s true identity.
Garner said the justice of the peace told him that “the family is wanting to collect, but I don’t have a birth certificate for this guy. I can’t issue a death certificate until I have something so we know what his real name was.”
The elder Gorman is buried in Cincinnati, where his headstone reads Bernard “Joe” Gorman. Although police records indicate that Joe Gorman was 48, his headstone is inscribed with a different birth date, making him 52 when he died.
In a recent Tarrant County court hearing, his wife gave a third birth date, which would have made him 53.
A woman with the state registrar’s office called Garner and told the sergeant that she had found a birth certificate for a Bernard Joseph Gorman Jr. but had no way of proving it was the same person.
“I keep thinking this guy is dead and buried but apparently not,” Garner said. “He still keeps popping up.”
A history of scams
Though Travellers have earned a reputation for home improvement scams, experts say insurance fraud is increasingly becoming the clan’s bread and butter.
Paul Connolly, an Irish investigative journalist, gained access to two Traveller communities in the United States — in South Carolina and in Tennessee — resulting in his documentary: Travellers in America — A Secret Society.
In an interview with TheJournal.ie, an Irish news website, Connolly said the Travellers told him that they make their living in trades like roofing and paving but that most of their income is from insurance.
“It’s just very, very clever,” Connolly told the website. “In America, there’s a clause which allows you to insure anyone with a blood connection — and as they have intermarried for generations, there’s a likelihood there will be a blood connection.”
Connolly said some of the more morbid Travellers refer to it as “death watch,” though the community does not regard the practice as odd or sinister.
“It’s a typical part of their lifestyle,” Connolly said. “As a wedding present, someone will say, ‘You can take a policy out on me!’ — so it’s a loophole that hasn’t been closed, I guess.”
Dirk Moore, a communications supervisor with the Lavaca County Sheriff’s Department who has investigated criminal Travellers for 25 years, said that “multiple relatives get insurance policies on someone that is up in age and feeble.”
“I have never heard about something like this happening — a Traveller murdering someone to collect on an insurance policy,” Moore said. “I talked to a Traveller recently, and he said things had changed a lot over the years. The game was different than it used to be, that it was all about the money.”
Why the Travellers targeted Fox is unclear, but Moore said she is affiliated with Travellers. Her two daughters are married to English Travellers, he said.
Different birth dates have also been associated with Fox.
The Tarrant County medical examiner’s office listed Fox as 72, using her fingerprints on file with the Department of Public Safety to establish that she was born in 1942. Fox’s headstone in Mount Olivet Cemetery, however, says she was born in 1945, making her 69.
A Traveller who is not being identified for fear of retribution said there is an insurance agent in South Carolina and another one in Texas who “signs them for anyone.”
“People have huge bounties on them and have no idea,” the Traveller said. “But this is the first murder that I know of.”
The Traveller said that members of the Irish clan are devout Catholics and that many with local ties are condemning the Gormans’ alleged involvement in Fox’s death.
“It is so sick if it is true,” the Traveller said. “The things that people will go to for money. My gosh.”
Garner said he’s been told that the Gormans grew impatient.
“They decided she was too healthy,” he said. “She wasn’t going to die anytime soon.”
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655