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 in Reader's Digest Magazine March 2014

psychic reading tableIstvan Banyai for Reader’s Digest
Best of all, she’ll do it for free. This is her life’s work, Marks says. This is her purpose. Doing right by you is how she gets right with God. You won’t have to pay a cent, ever. You just need to take a $4,500 cash advance on your credit card, please. Money is the root of your problems, see? Money is evil. This money—cash, of course—must be cleansed. Prayed upon. Stored in a dedicated drawer where it won’t be touched until it’s returned to you, free of bad spirits.

Now the hook is set. You’re out thousands of dollars, and you want to make sure you get it back. But there is still evil plaguing you, it is revealed. More money needs to be cleansed. What’s that? You don’t want to give over any more cash? You need to get over your fixation on money! You need to trust the process, the work. We’re talking about an ancient curse here! This is serious!

You continue in good faith, amazed at how much you’ve handed over, but telling yourself that it will return. That’s what you are specifically, repeatedly told by Marks: All this money will come back to you. As instructed, you liquidate some bonds. You sell property. You cash out your retirement account, absorbing the painful tax penalty. We’ve come so far. It’s not time to be timid or back down. You must give more money so more work can be done. Your boyfriend will come back to you. Your husband will leave you free to find the love and contentment you deserve. You’ll have a baby. Everything will work out.

It seems ridiculous. Suckers, right? Anyone who visits a psychic deserves to be fleeced. Yet in the courtroom, on the stand, the victims don’t sound stupid or deluded. One victim graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy; another is a lawyer. Instead, what they seem is all too human. At the time they first met Marks or a member of her family, they were lost and searching for peace. It’s very easy to mock what happened to them, but it also becomes clear how something that started so innocently could spiral into a trap from which there was no escape. The victims, almost all of them women, were vulnerable. All of them were looking for hope.

The cash rarely comes back. Marks told one client, Sylvia Roma, that hundreds of thousands of her dollars were lost in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. In court, the prosecution tediously documents where the $800,000 that Roma lost really went. “A St. Moritz 18-karat yellow gold watch,” says a special agent from the Secret Service, flipping through a folder of property recovered at the waterfront mansion in Fort Lauderdale where Marks and her family relocated from Manhattan. “A Rolex watch with sapphires and 29 round full-cut diamonds.” Photos of luxury cars flash on a video screen while the agent speaks. A Range Rover, white. A Mercedes coupe, black. A Mercedes SUV, black. A Bentley, a Ferrari, a Rolls-Royce, and a Jeep. “A 14-karat gold key to a Porsche,” says the agent, continuing until Judge Kenneth Marra cuts her off with an exasperated smirk.

Marks’s eldest son, Ricky, sits in the gallery every day, his eyes boring into the backs of the prosecutors’ heads. He pleaded guilty in 2013 to federal conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud involving the same victims. Other family members join him when they can, seven more of them also having pleaded guilty to conspiracy or fraud charges. Fortune-telling is their business. Rose Marks, described by the prosecution as the family matriarch, is the only one who decided to take a chance on a court trial.

The last victim to take the stand is the author Deveraux. She’s a small woman with an easy smile and a soft voice that hasn’t lost its Southern lilt. She starts with her basic information. That she was born in Kentucky in 1947. That she is the author of “happy little romantic novels that have happy endings and a lot of fun.” That a number of her books have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list and that she’d been doing “quite well financially” before she met Marks. Back then, she had four properties in Santa Fe and an apartment in New York City, which is where she first found Marks, in the early ’90s, before her divorce.

They met in the usual manner. The walking past the Plaza Hotel, the sandwich board, time on her hands, a curiosity about psychics. The room with the chairs. A chance to vent about her love life. Her marriage, she reveals, “was horrific, terrible, very bad.” Her husband, she testifies, was doing “everything to control me, make me feel as bad as he possibly could. It was brutal. He was screaming and yelling at me all the time.” She felt that suicide was her only way out. Marks, according to Deveraux’s polite and straightforward account, told her something that she deeply wanted to hear: “I can give you a peaceful divorce,” Marks said.

“I wanted that,” Deveraux matter-of-factly states in the courtroom. “A peaceful divorce.”

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