Published June 13. 2011 4:00AM Updated June 13. 2011 6:08PM
How do you prove a psychic didn't do her job?
Or worse: that she never was a psychic to begin with?
That question lies at the heart of the allegations being leveled against Sylvia Mitchell, the psychic arrested in Mystic May 25 who is wanted by New York state and city police on grand theft larceny charges.
A woman from Florida has accused Mitchell of swindling her out of $27,000, and another woman from the Catskills has accused Mitchell of taking more than $9,000 from her.
Mitchell, who owns Mystic Psychic, 27 West Main St., Mystic, is also named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by a New York woman who claimed that Mitchell bilked her out of more than $10,000.
It is a tough crime to prosecute, complicated by the need to prove a deception took place and the notion that clients walked in and willingly gave their money away.
But what the psychics who scam people do is more akin to brainwashing, according to Bob Nygaard, a private investigator who specializes in the crime, and descriptions from others who have filed lawsuits.
He said the crime is perpetuated little by little, a reeling in of a vulnerable "mark."
Clients have lost jobs, relationships, loved ones, as they stop in to the psychic seeking answers.
The psychic does a basic $20 palm reading, but this one's complicated, she says. She needs to do another, more extensive reading, and that one will cost $60.
She learns the client has "blockages." It will cost $500 to remove them.
The fees increase: $900 for a prayer ritual, more money to lift a curse.
In between, the psychic expresses concern and establishes a connection. She holds the client's hand, she calls and texts day and night.
"Usually the victims have issues or have experienced problems. … (Psychics) key on that and then what they do is say, 'I feel so close to you; you feel like a mother to me, a sister I never had,'" Nygaard said.
By the time victims realize they've been had, Nygaard, police, and others say, they are often too embarrassed and ashamed to pursue it. And society seldom backs the victim.
"That is the transient (criminal's) greatest weapon against society: ignorance in thinking it's not a big deal," said Nygaard.
The psychics involved in scams often move around a lot, hence the "transient." Many others refer to them as gypsies, a term often viewed as pejorative.
Nygaard added that the emotional abuse and financial loss suffered by victims is "immeasurable."
"By staying nonviolent, they can get over on the system. The crimes they commit are not going to be taken seriously for the most part. … Ignorance on the part of the outside world is their greatest weapon."
The common-law definition of larceny would include obtaining property by false pretenses or obtaining property by false promise, according to Todd Fernow, a criminal lawyer, professor and director of the criminal clinic at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
Both of those definitions involve obtaining money through some kind of deceit.
A more "prosaic" view, Fernow said, would include the following: "If I go into your stuff and take it without your permission, that's larceny. But if I talk you into believing it's in your best interest to give me that thing I'm taking, that's also larceny."
Fernow does not know the details of Mitchell's case and spoke in generalities during a phone interview on Friday.
There are a variety of similar deceit scams that can be considered larceny, including the well-known Nigerian scam (a wealthy foreigner needs help transferring money to an account in the U.S. and promises a cut in exchange for you helping to pay up-front fees); and a recent scam in which con artists call grandparents with a story about privately bailing out a grandchild so the parents don't find out.
But in those examples, the deception is fairly easy to prove. It is clear that the service being provided is fraudulent and not based on fact - a key element in larceny by trick or larceny by false pretense or false promise.
It becomes much trickier to prove with psychics, especially when a segment of the population strongly believes in them and many psychics honestly believe in their own abilities, not to mention the profession's receiving the endorsement of celebrities or public figures like Nancy Reagan, who famously relied on the advice of psychics throughout her husband's presidency.
The frauds that are exposed tend to be "elaborate hoaxes," Fernow said, those that include the use of holographic projection machines or tape recorders that are used to play the deceased person's voice.
In order to show that someone was duped, Fernow said, attorneys would have to show that their clients did not go to a real psychic. They'd have to prove that the psychic was a charlatan and their client could have received the goods and service had they gone to a "real" psychic.
"What kind of closing argument is that gonna be?" he asked.
But if the intent is to up the ante to dupe a vulnerable mark, that's different. A repetitive pattern, the reeling in of victims, is a different arena.
"That starts to look coercive and manipulative and not an honest exchange of entertainment for money," he said. "That starts to look different than simply going to a psychic."