West Palm Beach — Claiming her money was cursed by an abusive ex-husband, a mother and daughter team convinced a Boynton Beach-area woman to give them her cash to rid it of evil spirits.
Before she realized she had been duped by the women who described themselves as psychics, the 62-year-old woman had lost more than $1.4 million to the age-old scheme that has claimed victims throughout the ages.
“They fed on my vulnerabilities like psychological terrorists,” the woman, identified only as Ms. O, tearfully told a federal judge on Friday. “They have put me in a state of destitution from which I will never recover.”
While fortune-telling schemes for years have been ignored or treated lightly by the justice system, 74-year-old Annie Vwanawick and her 44-year-old daughter, April Miller, are the latest self-proclaimed psychics to be sentenced in federal court in South Florida.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra rejected their requests to remain free so they could raise money from their far-flung “gypsy family” to repay Ms. O and a Boca Raton man they bilked out of $9,000 in a similar scam.
As part of the paternalistic gypsy culture, both women were forced to become fortune-tellers or be ostracized from their families, said defense attorneys James Lewis and Melanie Malave.
Marra was unimpressed with their pleas for mercy.
“Can you basically steal $1.5 million from someone and get a non-incarcerative sentence?” Marra asked. “Would that promote respect for the law? Is that just punishment?”
Then, answering his own question, he said: “I don’t think so.”
Instead, he gave Vwanawick, known also as Grace Uwanawich and who has arrests in connection with fortune-telling schemes dating back to the 1970s, a 3½-year sentence. He handed Miller a roughly two-year term. He ordered them to report to prison on March 23.
Ms. O, who had asked Marra to put the mother and daughter behind bars for as long as 20 years, said she was disappointed by his decision.
“I will be the one sentenced to live out the rest of my life in poverty because of what they’ve done to me,” she said.
Bob Nygaard, a Boca Raton-based private investigator who specializes in fortune-telling cases, said the punishment was inadequate.
While the mother and daughter repaid $97,000, they still pocketed at least $1.3 million, he said. Spending three years in prison to make $1.3 million is a deal many people would take.
“This crime will never stop unless you take the incentive out of it,” Nygaard said. “This sentence does not deter crime.”
Under federal guidelines, the maximum sentence recommended was roughly four years. Marra said he couldn’t exceed that by six, much less 16, years.
Both Ms. O and the Boca man, identified only as Mr. A, said they were at low points when the mother and daughter entered their lives.
Mr. A’s business was struggling and his wife had health problems. Vwanawick and Miller said they saw a dark force surrounding his family. Only Vwanawick, a “white squaw of the Cherokee Indian Tribe,” could lift the curse by cleansing his money, he said he was told.
Ms. O said the two made similar dire claims about her future. In the midst of an ugly divorce from an alcoholic husband, she said she was willing to do anything to get her life back on track when Miller approached her in a nail salon in 2010.
What began as requests for money to buy candles, crystals and religious items quickly escalated into requests for cash. She began regularly withdrawing tens of thousands of dollars from her bank account, handing them cash along with nearly $50,000 in jewelry.
They promised to return the cash and gems after it was cleaned of evil spirits. “I swear to you, in Jesus’ name, we want nothing from you,” Ms. O said they assured her.
But, she said, when she demanded her money back, their demeanors changed. “You must be very stupid,” she said Vwanawick told her, quoting a conversation she recorded and took to the FBI.
While they refused to give her receipts, saying they couldn’t write and that it was against their culture, she kept meticulous records. Having already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, neither contested their misdeeds. But, they argued that, at most, they stole $800,000 from Ms. O and Mr. A.
Still, Marra ordered them to pay $1.4 million in restitution — an amount he said neither would probably ever repay.
The case comes roughly six years after Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Stefin convinced a West Palm Beach jury to convict Fort Lauderdale psychic Rose Marks of more than a dozen crimes for bilking vulnerable people out of nearly $18 million. Among her victims was best-selling romance novelist Jude Deveraux.
While other members of her family were also prosecuted, as the family matriarch, Marks received the stiffest sentence. She is serving a 10-year term.
Earlier this year, 28-year-old Sherry Tina Uwanawich (no relation) was sentenced to roughly three years in prison in connection with a $1.6 million fortune-telling scam she operated from homes in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
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