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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  • Your Comments

    • Luo

      The statement: “anyone who goes to see a psychic
      deserves to be fleeced” is misleading. It is like saying: “Anyone who uses the internet deserves to be scammed”, or “Anyone who invests money deserves to lose it”. Genuine psychics can often produce amazing information – a little actual research will bear this out. But fake psychics are just like fraudulent web pages or bad investments – worse than useless.

      There is no need to condemn genuine psychics just because fake psychics exist.

      • KSEubanks

        I’ve never even **heard** of “real psychic”. Are they listed in the Yellow Pages or somewhere on the ‘net? Where does one find a “real psychic”? I could certainly use some word of what my future will bring.

        • Aku Bata

          This essay is on point and I laughed whilst reading it because it reminded me of myself. I have been a victim and yes, I have been gullible. It is embarrassing but true. I have been fleeced of lots of money (thousands of dollars) because I keep seeking for solutions to my problems via spiritual means. You see I have myasthenia gravis and my children have autism—– and because of my cultural background, I was raised to belief in supernatural. I believe in God and the power of God to heal, thus I seek pastors and prayer warriors to help me pray. I have done countless spiritual works and these involve money. Yes, one of the “pastors” I met claimed that I was meant to be a priestess (or what we call native doctor….like a shaaman) and that I came from the “water spirit”. Long story short, it cost me good chunk of money trying to appease the water spirits who were said to be at war with me, and who were said to be behind my health misfortune and my children’s misfortune. After that, she discovered that I was “cursed” by a jealous woman….and that my personal “chi” or god wants appeasement sacrifices….It was one demand after the other from the spirits…. And I got wiser. She even warned me that if I fail to appease the gods and work as a priestess, that they would bring more suffering to me… Anyway, I defied that, and have refused to keep wasting my money. It is sad that a lot of us are superstitious regardless of how sophisticated we may appear to be. Anyway, this was a good story.

        • raymondschep

          Pyschics do exist..
          Go and read Annie Besant’s Book on “Man, Whence, Whither and Wherefrom”. It was written in 1910 and in it she gives an accurate description of the internet. She says at a future time there would be no more newspapers and families would get the news sent to their homes via a device, and they would be able to print out the daily news inside their own homes. She also wrote that all European countries would eventually unite into one central government and that ther would be no more warring between European countries. And this was 1910. Go read it, it is all in there.

          • KSEubanks

            Sorry, that’s not really proof, or even evidence, that psychics exist. You can say the same thing about Nostradomus(sp?) “predictions” which only work if you read them the right way. Even in 1910 – and well before then – there were a lot of people predicting the same things. A unified Europe has been a goal of a lot of people for decades before this person ‘predicted’ them.
            The book sounds interesting but it **doesn’t** seem to be proof that psychics exist.

            • raymondschep

              Well nobody can prove anything to anyone who disagrees, it is very easy now that Europe is Unified to say oh it would have happened anyway, but this was not so apparent in 1910, as a matter of fact two of the worst world wars where just about to break out, and nobody except a true psychic would have predicted this at that stage, and also in 1910, nobody had the slightest idea of what internet is and only a true psychic could have predicted it.

            • KSEubanks

              The funny part is that I would LOVE to see proof, or even decent evidence, that psychics exist but this person’s book just isn’t “it”. It proves nothing, it doesn’t even really **show** anything aside from some sleight of hand tricks that have been used by “psychics” for a great many years. It’s not that it’s easy to say something like European unification would’ve happened anyway in retrospect, there were a LOT of people working towards that unification and predicting that it would succeed.
              There were futurists who were predicting things like cell phones and the Internet in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s. H.G. Wells wrote “The Time Machine” and in that story he wrote of things no one had the slightest idea about; lasers, genetic engineering, automatic doors, etc… In other books he predicted nuclear weapons, mankind landing on the Moon, WWII, and more. Yet he never claimed to be psychic, he saw where science was heading and dreamed of the possibilities.

              I honestly don’t like to disagree with psychics being real but I’ve never, not in 40 years of reading and looking, seen evidence for a psychic that wasn’t easily debunked or explained somehow. Maybe I’ve become cynical over the years but I keep looking, and hoping to find, evidence of real psychic occurrences. Along with ghosts, UFO’s, and a few other supernatural happenings that I’ve not seen good evidence for I keep hoping these things can be shown to be real. Maybe someday I’ll find decent evidence.

    • 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?