This Upper West Side Psychic Parlor Specializes in Reincarnation (Its Own)

Three women operating out of the same fortunetelling shop were arrested and forced to repay their victims up to $60,000 apiece. But the parlor has proved resilient.

The New York Times/September 24, 2019

By Michael Wilson

A young woman stopped a stranger on West 69th Street near Lincoln Center last year, reaching for her hand with concern. She said she saw that the passer-by was spiritually ill, and urged her to step into a nearby apartment to talk more. The signs in the apartment window read “Palm and Tarot Card Readings” and “Clairvoyant Reader.”

One didn’t need a third eye to notice that the passing woman, a 42-year-old corporate recruiter recovering from major surgery who had just been fired from her job, was going through a tough time. She had been crying minutes before the psychic, Kitty Mitchell, 25, stopped her.

The psychic shop had been there for at least 10 years, a fixture on a block of prime real estate on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It had thrived even amid neighbors’ complaints and surprise visits from New York City inspectors who issued violations.

The tenants in the apartment had a history of evading city restrictions on home-operated businesses by finding loopholes in the rules, offering a case study into how psychics continue to thrive in modern-day New York. For years, the apartment has been a revolving door for psychics who promise a $5 or $10 peek at the future, a cottage industry that has proved to be recession-proof and common-sense-proof.

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What happened to the passing woman lured inside that day last year eventually brought visits from detectives. Two separate investigations led to the recent arrests of three women who worked as psychics in the apartment, at 143 West 69th Street. Each was convicted of felony larceny charges and forced to repay the victims up to $60,000 apiece.

Yet as recently as last week, fortunetellers appeared to be operating again in the same location, demonstrating how resistant the fortunetelling business can be to law enforcement.

In New York, it is a misdemeanor to claim to be able to use “occult powers, to answer questions or give advice on personal matters or to exorcise, influence or affect evil spirits or curses.” However, to make such claims “for the purpose of entertainment or amusement” is not illegal, and many fortunetellers have fine-print disclaimers in their locations.

Other city agencies had previously stepped in after complaints at the apartment. In 2009, the city’s Department of Buildings issued a violation to the occupants for displaying a sign for a commercial business. The violation was dismissed, however, when the sign was removed.

In the months and years that followed, fortunetelling signs of various shapes, fonts and sizes came and went from the apartment’s window, according to a scroll through Google Street View images.

In 2016, the Department of Buildings issued another violation for running a business from the apartment. But that violation was also dismissed when a judge with the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings determined that the business took up less than 25 percent of the space in the apartment, which is permissible. Fortunetelling requires a modest footprint — two chairs and a crystal ball.

The psychic parlor had existed in this way for almost a decade when the woman who had lost her job as a recruiter happened by on the way home from shopping in May 2018. She had recently undergone abdominal surgery to remove a precancerous growth and was feeling overwhelmed, she said. That’s when Ms. Mitchell, showing concern, offered a reading.

“If someone tells me a miracle is coming at the end of the journey, I believe them,” the woman said in an interview. By the end of the visit, she had paid $80 for a palm and face reading and an additional $150 in advance for Ms. Mitchell’s “research.”

“She gave me a small bottle of gold dust which she said to bathe in, to calm down my energy,” the woman later wrote in a statement to the police.

The next day, Ms. Mitchell summoned the woman back to the apartment. They spoke as Ms. Mitchell’s two young children played underfoot. She said she had discovered the woman’s troubled past lives — three of them. To cleanse her energy, Ms. Mitchell needed to light a candle for each of the 42 years of the woman’s current life. Each candle cost $90 (Ms. Mitchell told her they were large).

The woman paid her $3,780, she told the police.

There were more meetings, more evil spirits to be warded off with expensive tools, like a wax statue of the woman (to come from a supplier in Tunisia) and a special crown. Ms. Mitchell told her that her parents were at risk, and that her boyfriend was not her soul mate. The woman kept her dealings with Ms. Mitchell a secret from her boyfriend, she said.

There would be one more payout, a whopper at $30,000, which Ms. Mitchell said was needed to finish their work. “She said, ‘You’ve already spent this much,’” the woman recalled in an interview this week, requesting anonymity because she was the victim of a crime. “‘It’s all wasted if you don’t continue.’”

A few weeks later, in June of last year, the woman went to the police, visiting the 20th Precinct station house on West 82nd Street. It did not go well, she said. She felt embarrassed telling her story in the building’s front room in earshot of other visitors. Officers told her that there was no crime, as she had willingly paid the money, and that psychics were not illegal. “They said, ‘Look, there’s one right across the street,’” the woman said.

But she persisted, eventually reaching out directly to a detective who had worked on other cases involving psychics. He and the woman recorded telephone calls to Ms. Mitchell that led to her arrest. By the time she was taken into custody, the police had discovered a second woman who was also paying her large sums — $60,000 in total.

Ms. Mitchell pleaded guilty in September 2018 to a felony larceny charge, making a deal to avoid jail time by paying $100,000 in restitution to the two women. She was required to admit in a statement before the court that she had no psychic abilities.

The former recruiter, made whole financially, has moved on, she said. She and her boyfriend married. To this day, he still doesn’t know.

By the time Ms. Mitchell pleaded guilty, the apartment at West 69th Street was already back up and running. In August 2018, a woman shopping near Rockefeller Center on Fifth Avenue was approached by two strangers who appeared alarmed by what they described as evil spirits surrounding her, according to a criminal complaint. They were psychics, and they said $500 on the spot would buy a special candle.

That turned out to be the first of more than $50,000 the woman paid them over a couple of weeks. The psychics, Sue Steve, 37, and Geena Thompson, 25, gave her special instructions: When she went to the bank to withdraw the $43,941 for one payment, she was to inform the teller that it was for school, the complaint said.

The women were arrested last month. By then, Ms. Thompson, calling herself “Autumn,” was living and working in the Upper West Side apartment. A detective handcuffed her out front. Both women pleaded guilty to larceny this month and paid a total of $44,800 to the victim.

The arrests were news to the management company that runs the building.

“We are not anxious to have fraudulent businesses running out of our property,” a representative at the company said.

Cammi Marlin, the broker for the building, said none of the women arrested were the tenant on record — a man who took the apartment in 2014 and then sublet it. That lease expires next year, she said.

The former corporate recruiter, who lives nearby, was surprised, after her case was closed, at what happened next on West 69th Street.

“The new psychic moved in,” she said.

Last week, the apartment windows were filled with signs advertising psychic readings and a book titled “Casting Spells.” Another sign on the sidewalk promoted $5 readings by “Autumn.” Yet another sign, its A-frame design more common outside restaurants, announced “Chakra, Tarot, Palm Readings” and “Walk-ins welcome.”

A slight, young woman answered the buzzer and led a reporter to a small hallway with two chairs and a price list for various readings. But when she was asked about the recent arrests, a door leading to another room burst open. A man emerged and asked the reporter to leave.

“No comment,” he said.

Matthew Haag contributed reporting.

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