Psychic Found Guilty of Stealing $138,000 From Clients

The New York Times/October 11, 2013

By James C. McKinley Jr.

A jury found a Manhattan psychic guilty on Friday of swindling two women out of $138,000 in a case that probed the fine distinction between providing an unusual service and running a confidence scheme.

The fortune teller, Sylvia Mitchell, 39, who plied her trade at the opulent Zena Clairvoyant psychic shop on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village, scowled as the verdict was read, reaching up only once to dab an eye.

After the verdict, Justice Gregory Carro of Manhattan Supreme Court said he considered Ms. Mitchell, who lives with her two teenage children in Connecticut, a flight risk and ordered her held in jail. She faces up to 15 years in prison when she is sentenced on Oct. 29.

Outside the courtroom, Ms. Mitchell’s longtime companion, Steve Eli, had sharp words with her defense lawyer, William Aronwald. “You should have let her testify,” he said as he walked away. “You should have let her testify.”

After deliberating for six hours over two days, the jury convicted Ms. Mitchell on 10 counts of grand larceny and one count of scheme to defraud. The jury found her not guilty on five other grand larceny counts.

During a weeklong trial, prosecutors portrayed Ms. Mitchell as a clever swindler who preyed on distraught people, promising them that she could alleviate their troubles through prayer and meditation to remove what she called “negative energy” and rectify problems that arose from their “past lives.”

But her techniques also involved taking large sums of money from her clients, supposedly for safekeeping and to buy supplies for charms and rituals. Most of that money was never returned, according to testimony during the trial.

One witness, Debra Saalfield, who runs a marketing business and is a competitive ballroom dancer, said she had turned to Ms. Mitchell after a bad breakup and a job loss in 2008. Ms. Mitchell convinced her that her problems stemmed from her past life as an Egyptian princess and that she was too attached to money.

She convinced Ms. Saalfield to give her $27,000 for safekeeping as an exercise in letting go of money. Ms. Saalfield soon became suspicious, demanded her cash back and called the police. Ms. Mitchell eventually repaid Ms. Saalfield about $9,500, but kept the rest.

A second witness, Lee Choong, a Singapore native who earned a master’s degree in business in New York, went to Ms. Mitchell in 2007 when she was upset over an unrequited infatuation with a co-worker. Ms. Choong gave Ms. Mitchell about $128,000 over two years; she did not recoup any of it, despite a promise of a full refund if her life did not improve.

Ms. Mitchell also convinced Ms. Choong that she was surrounded with “negative energy” that would be dispelled by putting $18,000 in a jar and leaving it with the psychic. Later, Ms. Choong gave Ms. Mitchell tens of thousands more, supposedly for supplies.

During the trial, Mr. Aronwald argued that Ms. Mitchell had held up her side of her bargain with the women, providing prayers, meditation and rituals aimed at alleviating their problems. “She provided the services that were contracted,” he said.

That these methods did not work or were of questionable value did not mean Ms. Mitchell had defrauded the women, Mr. Aronwald argued in his summation. Both women admitted on the stand under cross-examination that they were deeply skeptical of Ms. Mitchell’s techniques, but paid her anyway, suggesting that they were never tricked into thinking the psychic had the power to better their lives, Mr. Aronwald said.

But an assistant district attorney, James Bergamo, described Ms. Mitchell as an expert at discovering people’s vulnerabilities and scaring them into handing over their cash. It mattered little, he argued in his summation, if Ms. Mitchell’s clients believed what she said about their past lives or negative spirits: the important fact was that they believed she would return their money. “The facts scream scam,” he said.

One juror, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “The case turned on the idea of larceny as a promise not delivered on.” He said Ms. Mitchell had taken “outrageous sums” from the women, claiming it was for supplies like candles, but used the money for other purposes.

“She was clearly robbing these people in a heinous way,” the juror said.

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