The Psychic, The Novelist, and the $17 Million Scam

"Take off your bracelet," the fortune-teller commands. That's a test. Do you trust? You'd be amazed at how much you'll hand over, telling yourself that it will return.

By Robert Andrew Powell
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine March 2014

fortune teller illustrationIstvan Banyai for Reader’s Digest
Start the whole nightmare on a whim. Kind of as a joke, really.

Walk up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan with a little time on your hands. As you turn past the Plaza Hotel, spy a sandwich board on the sidewalk advertising fortune-telling and psychic insights. Notice how the sign points to a prewar building where the rents must be astronomical. The address alone signals that this operation—you’re unsure what exactly psychics do, to be honest—is legit, that it isn’t some carnival-barker-at-the-fair scam. Not that you’re thinking about it so deeply. This isn’t to be a big deal, a major financial mistake, an event in your life that you will later come to describe with the words disgust and shame. It’s just a little entertainment, initially, as you step inside the building. Akin to visiting the Apple Store, one victim will testify. Harmless. Just a fun diversion.

Be at your lowest point, emotionally. Really suffering. (This emotional weakness will be your undoing.) Susan Abraham, an Englishwoman in town with her husband, doesn’t know whom to talk to about him. How he’s always criticizing her. How she feels like a bird trapped in a cage. And how she wants out of the marriage so very badly. Jennifer Hill, a marketing executive from Hawaii, has just ended a long relationship. The breakup leaves her without any prospects as she sees her last chance at childbearing fade away. Jude Deveraux, a romance novelist from New Mexico by way of Kentucky, feels stuck in a terrible marriage too. Unable to turn to her husband, Deveraux walks alone with her problems, like the others. She craves someone she can open up to.

Rose Marks will be that person. She’s a grandmother in her 60s. Matronly in appearance, with silver hair, olive skin, designer eyeglasses. She’s one of a long line of women brought up in the dark art of fortune-telling. Her mother was a psychic; her grandmother too. Marks has been in the business since being pulled out of school in the third grade. Her operation is a scam, prosecutors argue. But Marks regards herself as a life coach of sorts. In federal criminal court facing charges of fraud, money laundering, and falsifying tax returns, Marks insists through her attorney that she was an independent contractor who was hired by clients for her keen ability to offer guidance. Not a grifter, she was a combination of psychologist, social worker, financial counselor, spiritual teacher, and friend.

“I gave my life to these people,” Marks says in an interview with the Sun-Sentinel before the trial begins. “We’re talking about clients of 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. We’re not talking about someone I just met and took all their money and ran off.”

Marks is not the only fortune-teller to find herself in a criminal courtroom in 2013. Another Manhattan psychic, working under the name Zena the Clairvoyant, was recently convicted of swindling $138,000 from her clients, including $27,000 from a Naples, Florida, woman who was led to believe that she had been an Egyptian princess in a previous life.

Marks, though, is the next level. No other clairvoyant has raked in anything close to her financial haul. That novelist she counseled, Jude Deveraux? Her bestselling books—Scarlet Nights, Days of Gold, and others that if you haven’t read, you’ve seen in airport bookstores—have sold some 60 million copies. Marks took from the writer more than $17 million of her profits, an eye-popping sum that the defense does not dispute. Again, Marks claims this money was simply payment for services rendered. Just like the several million dollars she was given by more than a dozen other alleged victims listed on the federal indictment, adding up to a grand total of $25 million.

“You’re going to hear many references to ‘the work,’ ” Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Bardfeld tells the pool of prospective jurors when the trial opens in August in West Palm Beach, Florida. As witnesses testify over the course of the following month, what the work entails will become clear—and how easy it is to fall for it.

Inside the storefront, you’ll be ushered into a room—closet-size, windowless, so tiny there’s space only for two chairs and a small round table. A menu, just like at a restaurant, lists the services. You want to see your future in tarot cards? Anyone can do tarot cards, you’re told. Choose something else. A palm reading? Again, no, too common. “Take off your bracelet and let me see it,” the fortune-teller instructed Hill, the Hawaiian executive who, prior to this, says she’d always considered herself street-smart. That’s your first test: handing over something valuable. You’re being screened. Do you trust? Hill turned over her bracelet. Abraham, the unhappy wife from England, gave Marks’s daughter-in-law a pair of earrings. You’ll talk about your love life while the jewelry is appraised. Vent about your husband, your breakup. Finally, you’ve found someone who cares.

“I kept coming back because she was listening to me. I’ve never been able to get anyone to listen to me,” Deveraux testifies.

But there’s bad news. It turns out the jewelry is giving off evil vibes—really bad signals, serious problems. This is going to take all night. “I have to pray on it,” you will be told. Can you come back tomorrow? (Another test: Do you still trust? Or do you feel the hook sliding into your flesh?) You don’t want to come back, you’ll protest. You were just playing around. You don’t believe any of this, really. Such talk earns you a scolding. Your negativity is a problem. With this attitude, nothing can be done for you. You’ll end up feeling kind of badgered into it, but you will leave your jewelry with her. And the next day, as instructed, you’ll return.

“I wanted to get my bracelet back,” Hill explains.

But when you come back, there’s more bad news. Turns out you’ve been cursed. Centuries ago. In another life. This curse is the reason why your relationship ended, why you can’t conceive a child. But there’s good news. Marks and the family members who work under her can change things. “I can block this curse,” Hill is told. “This is what I am here for. I can help you.”

  • Your Comments

    • least fascist

      This essay is so poorly written it’s not believable – even though it’s true.

      • Betty Jo

        What was poor about the writing?