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.

fortune teller illustration
Istvan 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.”

psychic reading table
Istvan 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.”

stack of money illustration
Istvan Banyai for Reader’s Digest
The work began. Deveraux handed over one of her writing notebooks, for the energy it gave off. She also put up money. Twelve hundred dollars at first, with the usual promise that the cash would be returned when the work was done. Soon, Deveraux added “a few thousand here, a few thousand there, to give [Marks] more energy.” That energy supposedly helped Marks telepathically enter Deveraux’s husband’s mind, to see what he was planning.

The work drew Deveraux in. She began to believe what she was told. And yes, what she was told does sound ludicrous. That her husband had sold his soul to the devil. That the peaceful divorce she was promised was more difficult to deliver than expected, so she should turn over a cool $1 million, which soon became a $1 million-a-year flat fee. In return for the cash, Marks became Deveraux’s most trusted confidante, dispensing advice about all aspects of life. Advice that, in hindsight, could not have been worse.

For the split from her husband, Deveraux wanted to hire an experienced divorce attorney, but Marks steered her to a guy who had little background in divorce. That lawyer drafted an agreement giving Deveraux’s husband too much, the property, the cars. And Deveraux would have to pay her former spouse’s bills into the future, along with his future taxes. Marks pushed Deveraux to sign off on the settlement, explaining that the terms were irrelevant because her husband was “going to die very soon … within three years.”

Twenty years later, he’s still alive. Healthy. Very wealthy. Marks’s advice was so destructive that prosecutors investigated the possibility she was working in league with the divorce attorney. (No evidence of collusion was found.)

Still, Deveraux stayed with Marks, even after the divorce. The novelist wanted a baby. Marks told her she couldn’t have one without the psychic’s help. She also told Deveraux that if she had a child, it would fall over her New York apartment’s balcony railing. So Deveraux sold the apartment, giving Marks all the proceeds so that the money from the sale could be spiritually cleansed. “She was fierce about asking about it,” Deveraux testified, referring to the hefty checks she regularly signed over to Marks. “Money was extremely important to her.”

Deveraux suffered eight miscarriages. When she finally gave birth in 1997, Marks told her that she needed more money to keep the baby from harm. “I would have paid anything to protect my son,” Deveraux explains. “Anything.” The protection didn’t work. Deveraux’s young son died after being hit by a truck. Marks warned that he was going to hell without spiritual intervention. “I gave her some hair I had cut from my son, and she said all she saw were flames,” Deveraux says, her voice wavering for the first time since she’s been on the stand. “She said I had to write books. I was crying all day long. She said she had to have money to keep my son out of the flames.”

With her son dead and her divorce still on her mind, the quality of Deveraux’s books deteriorated, the author admits. The amount of money left to take from her dwindled in lockstep, and Marks became harder to reach, Deveraux says. That’s pretty much the way these relationships conclude. There’s a script for that too.

The end is so inelegant. All your money spent on those diamond-encrusted watches and sterling silver bracelets stashed at Marks’s home. That Ferrari, too, and all those other cars. Also, it will come out, there’s Marks’s gambling addiction. Court testimony reveals that Marks poured millions of her clients’ dollars into slot machines at the Seminole Hard Rock casino in Hollywood, Florida.

You don’t know this yet. You will call Marks repeatedly, begging for the return of your savings. (You’ll be having significant financial problems by now, to say the least.) She used to take your every call. Now she picks up selectively. When you do reach her, she’s brusque. Abrupt. She tries to talk you into showing more faith, sticking with it a little longer so she can complete the work. You ask, again, and then again, for your money. Finally, Marks cracks. “There is no money,” she snapped at Andrea Walker, another client. “You want to sue me, sue me.” She hangs up. The end.

Except now you’re cooperating with the police. You’re taping the phone calls. They will be played in court for jurors, who take less than five hours to deliberate and convict Marks on all 14 criminal counts. Marks, who opted not to testify, nods her head each time the foreman says the word guilty. That morning, she’d arrived at the courthouse in comfortable tennis shoes and pants, a clear change from the sharp outfits she’d worn throughout the trial. It’s as if she can see the future, and she’s ready to be taken into custody, which is what happens.

“I love you,” she says to her distraught family as she’s led away. “It’s going to be OK.”

Marks will likely receive up to 20 years in jail. Prosecutors have filed a motion to get $25 million of the victims’ money returned, a maneuver unlikely to bear fruit, since her attorney, who was paid for his services in part with a used Rolls-Royce from the psychic, claims she no longer has any assets. That doesn’t upset Deveraux.

“I will accept no money from this [prosecution],” she’d earlier testified. “My only goal here is to make Rose Marks stop doing this.”

The guilty verdict is being appealed. Marks is too frail to survive incarceration, her lawyer insists. Even with a sentence as short as four years, “the wear and tear on her body from working since she was eight or nine” would kill her. Regardless of her sentence, she has entered custody with a project to work on. She intends to write a book about her life, she has said. She believes it’s a story people will want to read and, more important, buy. She thinks there’s a way she can still make some money out of this.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest