A Psychic's Legal Problems Grow, Perhaps Not Unforeseeably

The New York Times/February 8, 2013

Police officers and psychics more or less stay out of each other's way in New York City. But an entire cottage industry of law enforcement has grown up around the 38-year-old fortuneteller and evil-spirit exterminator Sylvia Mitchell, and it was on full display in Manhattan Criminal Court this week.

Standing beside her, outside a courtroom after a hearing on Wednesday morning, was her lawyer, Joseph W. Murray, a retired New York police officer and former member of the department's boxing team. His tough-guy, no-nonsense demeanor is put to the test when he speaks of his client's abilities. "Who are we to say that it doesn't exist, that she doesn't have this power?" he recently asked.

Watching from down the hall was Bob Nygaard, a retired Nassau County and New York City Transit police officer, now a private investigator who specializes in pursuing psychics in general and, of late, Ms. Mitchell in particular. Mr. Murray was complaining that Mr. Nygaard had been running around the West Village persuading Ms. Mitchell's clients to say they were victims of crimes and to go to the police.

"It's all about making money," Mr. Murray said.

Mr. Nygaard, out of earshot, was on the telephone with a nearby detective squad, telling an officer that Ms. Mitchell was in court. The officer told him that the squad already knew this, thank you.

Finally, Ms. Mitchell shook my hand and said, "Nice to meet you," and walked out of the courthouse, and two more lawmen - detectives, and not retired - approached her from behind. One asked, "Are you Sylvia Mitchell?" And she was arrested again.

The older case, the one that brought her to the courthouse on Wednesday, involves accusations that she stole $28,000 from a client at her former place of employment, Zena, a plush Seventh Avenue South storefront for psychics in the West Village. The new charges eclipse the old ones in both dollar amount and bizarreness.

The complainant spoke by telephone from her home in Asia, on the condition that her name and country be left out of this article, as the embarrassing nature of the case could hurt her professionally. She said she first entered the Zena parlor in 2007 with personal and professional troubles.

A crystal-ball reading and Ms. Mitchell's pledge to meditate on the matter cost $1,000, but the price tag, she said, implied quality. "A lot of these other psychics, if you walk by their shops, they look ghetto," she said.

What followed were a series of candles and rituals and a "sculpture" that Ms. Mitchell said she created to absorb the victim's evil spirits from a past life, the client said. The sculpture, however, needed fancy clothes and shoes, and so the client met Ms. Mitchell at a Gucci store and Bergdorf Goodman and paid for those things, she said.

The client said that once, at Ms. Mitchell's urging, she wrote a friend's name on a piece of paper, put it in a jar, spit on it, added water and slept with it under her bed. She then took it, covered with a cloth, to Ms. Mitchell, and when the psychic removed the cloth, the water had turned black.

The client said that the black water made her feel "a little bit troubled and a little bit skeptical," but that she nonetheless forked over more than $120,000 to Ms. Mitchell over time, and left the country for good at the psychic's urging. She said Ms. Mitchell promised to repay some of the money and did not. The client approached Mr. Nygaard, and he helped her take her case to detectives.

She said she was college-educated and realized that she should have known better, but she added, "When a person is going through a difficult time, you want to see answers."

Ms. Mitchell's companion, Steve Eli - they are not married but live together in Mystic, Conn., and have three children, he said - defended her livelihood. "It was more selling merchandise and selling tarot cards and people saying, ‘Teach me,' " Mr. Eli said.

Her troubles began, he said, when she worked in Florida and a doctor introduced her to a very troubled man who needed a live-in spiritual adviser: Michael Jackson. The singer whisked her away to his Neverland Ranch via jet for weeks at a time, Mr. Eli said. When Mr. Jackson's own legal troubles arose, people began harassing Ms. Mitchell, and they have never stopped, he said. The account of her association with Mr. Jackson could not immediately be confirmed.

Mr. Eli declined to address the new charges. But when, in general, did Ms. Mitchell go from selling tarot cards to making a bottle of tap water turn black?

"A black bottle!" he said, laughing. "That's ridiculous!"

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