Seeing Freedom in Their Future, Psychics Reveal All: ‘It’s a Scam, Sir’

The New York Times/August 25, 2015

By Michael Wilson

Is it real? Or a bunch of baloney? It’s a question New Yorkers and visitors to the city may ask themselves when they pass any of the seemingly countless storefront fortunetellers.

Celia Mitchell, 38, was pointedly asked that exact question last year: “What is the psychic business? Is it real, or a bunch of baloney?”

She answered, “It’s a scam, sir.”

“The whole thing is a scam?”


Ms. Mitchell would know. She herself was a psychic. But after making a living portraying herself as a vessel of supernatural powers, she was coming clean.

She worked out of shops on Ninth Avenue in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. In 2009, Ms. Mitchell told a client that a dark spirit was keeping happiness at bay. She asked the client for an $11,450 Rolex watch and a lot of candles and cash to clean the spirits. In all, the client paid her $159,205, according to a criminal complaint.

Ms. Mitchell was arrested and convicted of grand larceny and sent to prison, which is where, on March 4, 2014, she came to be questioned about her work. In the process, she joined a very specific group: convicted psychics who, seeking an early release from prison, sit for interviews before the parole board.

That number may soon grow. One psychic, Sylvia Mitchell, 41, who worked in Greenwich Village, is serving a prison term of five to 15 years after a grand larceny conviction in 2013. She will be eligible for a parole hearing in 2017. And this summer, a Times Square psychic, Priscilla Kelly Delmaro, 26, was charged with taking $713,975 from a marketing professional from Brooklyn after promising to reunite him with a woman he loved, even after the man discovered that the woman had died. Ms. Delmaro is in jail awaiting trial.

Reviews of transcripts from several parole hearings in recent years shine a light behind the hanging beads of the psychic parlor. The inmates’ reflections on their careers may give pause to the passer-by willing to pay $20 or $50 or more for a promised peek at the future.

“I regret it,” said another fortuneteller, Sylvia S. Mitchell, then 40, at a 2006 parole hearing. “I’m sorry. I regret it and I have no explanation for it; that is just corruption. I look back at it and I can’t believe that I did all these things.”

Sylvia S. Mitchell, who lived in Chelsea, is no apparent relation to the woman of the same name who worked in Greenwich Village. She was convicted of manslaughter after the death of her 85-year-old husband of three months in Manhattan in 1993. She had met him only months before, and admitted to killing him with an overdose of barbiturates to get his money.

“My culture did not allow me to go to school,” she told the parole commissioners. “I never had education. I was to do this fortunetelling business, to make money.”

Another psychic convicted of grand larceny, Betty Vlado, 46, called herself a Gypsy and said she started out reading tarot cards.

“Was it useless?” a commissioner asked at her 2014 parole hearing.

“Yes, pretty much.”

Ms. Vlado was asked: “Are you pretty much just telling a story, basically lying? Just making stuff up?”


Three friends entered her shop on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 2011. Ms. Vlado recalled one of them in particular. “She was telling me her problems, and I pretty much took advantage of that,” she said.

“Do you consider yourself a good liar?”


She may be selling herself short. She convinced one woman to pay her $14,500 for a rock she said came from a meteorite that she had obtained from a “NASA insider,” according to press accounts of the criminal complaint, which has since been sealed. In all, Ms. Vlado admitted to taking a total of $55,000 from multiple victims and promised to pay it back. When she missed her deadline, she went to prison.

“Have you lied to us here today?” a commissioner asked at her hearing.


She was denied parole, but had a second hearing a short time later, in January in Albion Correctional Facility near Rochester.

“Has anyone at Albion asked you for a little fortunetelling?” a commissioner asked.

“No.” She said no one at the prison knew why she was there.

“You don’t forecast the future?”


The transcripts suggest the commissioners were not above having some fun at the expense of the inmates, who were hoping to be given what is known as an open date for early release.

“Are you going to be given an open date or not?” Joseph P. Crangle, a commissioner, asked Ms. Vlado. “You’re a fortuneteller. Tell me what I am thinking.”

“I am hoping you’re thinking to give me a chance to go home,” she replied.

“That’s not what he asked you,” another commissioner interjected.

Commissioner Crangle asked again, “What am I thinking?”

“I am not going to read your mind.”

Ms. Vlado described how she read tarot cards: “By energy, by the pictures, the way they fold, the way they’re turned. If they fall face down, it means one thing. If it falls facing me, it means another thing.” If she were released, she said, her fortunetelling days would be behind her.

“I will never look at a tarot card or a palm ever again,” Ms. Vlado said. She was granted parole and released on Feb. 26.

Celia Mitchell of Ninth Avenue, who once asked a client for money for a “meditation tent,” described her work.

“Sometimes you don’t see anybody,” she said. “Sometimes you see four, five people a day. It depends. It’s a flow. It could be nobody. It could be some days you don’t make anything, and some days you can make three, four hundred dollars a day.”

A commissioner asked Ms. Mitchell how she predicted futures.

“It was just going by what they would give you,” she said. “It’s all a scam. It’s by their demeanor. I want to write a book about how Gypsies scam people out of their money.”

“You don’t think there’s any legitimate psychics out there?” she was asked.

“If they are taking your money,” she said, “they are not for real.”

Ms. Mitchell, who does not appear to be related to either of the two Sylvia Mitchells, said that she had no intention of returning to fortunetelling. A parole commissioner reminded her that they had heard that before. Ms. Mitchell had been convicted of grand larceny in 2007 under similar circumstances, and the board had granted her parole several months later.

“We didn’t predict your future correctly last time, did we?” a commissioner asked.

“I guess not,” she replied.

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