Georgetown boutique owner Krista Johnson says the problem started about eight months ago. It was an otherwise normal day at Ella-Rue, her shop just off Wisconsin Avenue. Suddenly, the small, cluttered clothing and accessories store became overwhelmed by a group of women, half a dozen of them, either pregnant or with little children, all speaking in a thick accent she discerned as Irish. They were so intense they scared her, especially when they began to tear through her clothing racks. Since that day, according to Johnson, the women—whom she calls “Irish gypsies”—have returned to her store on a somewhat regular basis.
“They are young girls, anywhere from six to seven of them, decked out in designer wear, all with long hair,” Johnson says. “They generally have one older woman with them. They make a mess. They throw clothing on the floor, put on sizes that are too small, and tear the clothing.” The whole purpose is to steal, she says, and she has called the police when they show up, but “they flee before the police arrive.” Johnson admits she’s never filed an official complaint, and the Metropolitan Police Department confirmed there are no incident reports regarding the matter. Without incident reports, the police don’t have the group on their radar.
While Johnson’s encounters are compelling, they are not unique. The Betsy Johnson and Second Hand Rose stores, both also on Wisconsin Avenue, have mentioned similar episodes. The group of “shoppers” appear to favor high-end clothing stores, and they seem to like to make repeat visits to the same stores. A random check of several other Georgetown boutiques (Urban Chic, Sassanova, Wink, and Second Time Around) found no other incidents.
Mo Aliyan, a manager at Betsy Johnson, says the hits by the Irish groups started “in the past four or five months.” He says they come often, “maybe once a week, a group as large as seven, and they range in age from 9 years old to 60 years old. They are either pregnant or have children with them.” Like Johnson, he describes them as having long hair and Irish accents, and adds, “You would notice them a mile away from the way they dress.”
It is possible the women are Irish Travelers or, in slang, “Irish gypsies,” a tribe notorious across the US and the UK for sometimes pulling retail and home repair scams. There is even a TLC reality show, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, that chronicles a band of British Travelers. But Johnson doesn’t find them entertaining.
Once when the group of women came to her store, she asked where they live. They told her their home was in Sterling, Virginia, “and they all say they are living with their uncle, but most of them have babies or are pregnant. The children are very neglected. Their diapers are dirty.”
Tribes of Irish Travelers have been in the US for more than 150 years, supposedly having fled Ireland to escape the potato famine. According to Time magazine, they “speak a Gaelic-English dialect called ‘cant.’ (‘Misli shayjo!’ means, ‘Go away, the police are here!’)”
Johnson says her rage toward them is not because of who they are but what they do. Lately she has taken to physically forcing them out of her store. She can do that because she’s an independent boutique with no corporate policy that aims to accommodate all customers.
Betsey Johnson, on the other hand, does have such a policy. “We don’t kick them out because we are a corporation,” says Aliyan of the store, which also keeps a security guard on the premises. Nonetheless, he feels the women are a serious problem and need to be watched closely. “They come in with tags from other stores and they’ll switch tags. They know how to take off censors. We’ve found missing jewelry.” He calls them “professional criminals,” but says that so far, “none of the ready-to-wear has gone missing,” perhaps because store staffers are usually able to catch them before that happens. “We’ve never had to call the police because we have a security guard. They know not to mess with us,” he says.
Sometimes they do shop, paying with cash or credit cards. What’s always the same is that they arrive as a posse, loud and chaotic. “The first time they came, in I was so scared because there are so many of them,” Krista Johnson recalls. “They scream at you, and the babies scream.”
Lynn Boynton, who owns Second Hand Rose, says her first encounter with them happened in the spring, and while she didn’t find it funny then, she’s able to laugh about it now. She says they arrived “like a storm—pretty, blond, big-busted, and they all have hundred-dollar bills. They spend.” As Johnson and Aliyan reported, they had little children with them, and baby carriages. After they departed, Boynton noticed a large Burberry bag was missing. One of them had called earlier to ask for directions, and Boynton had her phone number on Caller ID. She called a number, which had a 703 area code, and told the woman who answered that she had them on camera and if the bag wasn’t returned in four hours, she was calling the police. “Someone called back and said she found the bag in a baby carriage, and she paid for it by credit card.”
Still, Boynton says she’s willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. “I know some people don’t want them in their stores, and if they hadn’t paid for the Burberry bag, I might feel differently. . . . [But] I’m not convinced they are thieves.”