Nelson spiritual center initiated scheme involving psychic, court filing argues

The Daily Progress, Virginia/November 30, 2016

Known as Catherine Marks to her customers — and Sandra Marks by the federal government — the operator of the now-defunct Readings by Catherine was sentenced to 30 months behind bars and ordered to pay more than $5 million in restitution to the customers she defrauded out of huge sums of money. But according to Marks’ attorney, that money would have never walked through her door were it not for the Synchronicity Foundation, a Faber-based spiritual community, and its founder, Master Charles Cannon.

During Marks’ sentencing in federal court in Charlottesville on Nov. 18, her attorney, Bill Dinkin, argued that she should be allowed to serve half of the recommended 36-month sentence from her home. In arguing for lighter sentencing restrictions, Dinkin said Synchronicity led wealthier clients to Marks’ offerings of spiritual counsel.

“If not for Synchronicity, she’d probably be reading palms for $35,” Dinkin said.

Founded in 1983, Synchronicity describes itself as a foundation for modern spirituality that operates its headquarters at a sanctuary on Adial Road in Nelson County. A monastic community resides at the sanctuary, with a “growing secular community” living in the area surrounding it, according to Synchronicity’s website.

Helming the foundation is Cannon, described on the site as a world-renowned “modern spiritual teacher.” According to a memorandum filed in court just ahead of Marks’ sentencing, Marks developed a “working relationship” with Cannon that led to her criminal conduct.

Court filings show that Marks was born in West Virginia as a Romani, a nomadic ethnic group with origins in India. The Romani, widely known to English-speaking people by the more derogatory term “gypsies,” have their own language and, per their culture, removed Marks from formal education by the age of 6. She was never taught to read or write and remains illiterate to this day, according to her attorney.

While the environment created a “close-knit family,” according to her attorney’s sentencing memo, it also cultivated a “debilitating degree of dependence and insulated her from exposure to traditional social norms.” Marks left the culture when she married her husband, Donnie Marks, at the age of 16.

The couple had four children, and in their home and office on U.S. 29 in Albemarle County, they maintained a lifestyle “consistent with the gypsy culture,” Dinkin wrote. While Donnie Marks occasionally worked in the scrap metal business, Sandra was the family’s primary breadwinner, working as a “spiritual counselor.”

“Mrs. Marks would oftentimes receive clients at her home, where she would conduct various forms of mystic exercises involving prayer, the use of crystals and idols, tarot card readings and attempted communication with the dead,” the memorandum reads.

Things took a turn in 2003, when Cannon visited Marks at the home-office. During that meeting, Cannon sought “spiritual counseling services” and took a “keen interest” in Marks’ practices, eventually offering her employment providing “similar spiritual services.”

The filing says that while Marks was working as an employee and counselor at Synchronicity, Cannon introduced her to what he called “the Big Process,” in which Synchronicity accepted “significant funds, ranging from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars” from people affiliated with the foundation for the purpose of spiritual healing.

“The relinquishment of funds was considered as a sign of unwavering faith in Cannon as a deity and was meant to sever his followers from the negative temptations of materialism,” the memorandum states.

Cannon would refer clients, some of whom suffered from emotional distress or mental disorders, to Marks, who was then expected to return significant portions of their money to Cannon and his organization. The filing states that Marks would counsel these clients and secure their finances by offering to “channel her spiritual gifts, rid these clients and their funds of negative spirits and return the funds once they were ‘cleansed.’”

“In reality, these funds were spent and were very rarely returned,” Dinkin wrote.

The memorandum states that all but one of Marks’ high-dollar victims met her through Cannon and was a follower of his religious and spiritual teachings. The one victim who was not introduced through Cannon was still subjected to a similar scheme.

“As to the scheme at issue in this case, Marks was not predisposed to engaging in fraudulent activity, but was eventually introduced to such a scheme via Mr. Cannon and Synchronicity,” the filing reads. “Her work with this organization fostered a pattern of conduct that eventually became fraudulent in nature.”

U.S. Attorney Ron Huber, who prosecuted Marks’ case, said he could not comment on whether an investigation was opened against Synchronicity, or on the foundation’s involvement with the Marks investigation.

Cannon did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Marks ultimately was saddled with a 30-month sentence and an order to pay $5.4 million in restitution after pleading guilty earlier this year to fraud and money laundering charges.

The same memorandum that implicates Cannon and Synchronicity also states that while Marks conducted the fraudulent scheme, it was her husband who managed and spent the large sums of money she gleaned over the course of a decade. During that time, Sandra Marks “remained ignorant of how a majority of these funds were being used on a daily basis.”

“Of the expenditures, Mr. Marks purchased cars, jewelry and clothing, while also traveling and incurring gambling debts,” the filing states.

In court last week, Donnie Marks pleaded guilty to his own set of fraud and money laundering charges, and will be sentenced in federal court on Feb. 10.

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