Sat, Oct 05, 2013 - Page 7 News List

NYC psychic on trial on charges of conning clients


When a ballroom-dancing instructor who had just lost a job and a lonely Singaporean businesswoman wandered into a fortune-teller’s shop, the soothsayer foresaw lucrative opportunities — for herself, US prosecutors said.

Conjuring past lives, divining “negative energy” and promising to banish problems through techniques such as stuffing thousands of customers’ dollars in a jar, Sylvia Mitchell bilked the businesswoman out of US$128,000 and the dance instructor out of more than US$10,000, prosecutors said as Mitchell’s grand larceny trial opened on Thursday.

“It’s one of the most humiliating things that’s ever happened to me,” dance instructor Debra Saalfield said in recounting how she tapped a credit line on her Florida home to hand over US$27,000 as a personal “test” to a psychic, who said Saalfield had been an Egyptian princess in a previous existence.

The case, one of several against psychics in New York and elsewhere in recent years, probes at the line between selling a service, however unusual, and preying on hopes.

The two women hired Mitchell to help them try to change their lives, and there is no evidence “that she did not provide the services that she was contracted to provide,” Mitchell’s lawyer, William Aronwald, said.

However, prosecutors say Mitchell, 39, seized on despair to peddle false promises of personal transformation.

“The defendant is not in the business of cleansing spirits. She’s in the business of cleaning out bank accounts,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney James Bergamo said.

Mitchell cultivated an even more financially rewarding relationship with another client, Lee Choong, a Singapore native who earned a master’s degree in business in New York, prosecutors said.

Far from home, Choong was juggling heavy professional demands with a personal problem: She had developed a romantic interest in a female co-worker, who did not reciprocate, according to prosecutors and Mitchell’s lawyer.

Mitchell said Choong was surrounded by “negative energy,” and could exorcise it by putting US$18,000 in a jar that Mitchell would hold, Bergamo said.

Choong ultimately gave Mitchell about US$128,000 over two years, prosecutors and the defense said.

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