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Trial Begins For Manhattan Psychic Accused Of Duping Desperate Customers

Prosecutor: Fortune Teller Bilked Two Customers Out Of More Than $100,000
Manhattan Supreme Court (file / credit: Evan Bindelglass / CBSNewYork)

Manhattan Supreme Court (file / credit: Evan Bindelglass / CBSNewYork)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A Greenwich Village fortune teller is accused of telling a desperate single mom that she was an ancient Egyptian princess in a past life in order to scam her out of $27,000.

As WCBS 880’s Irene Cornell reported, the alleged victim, Debra Saalfield, testified Thursday that she sought the help of psychic Sylvia Mitchell after breaking up with her boyfriend and losing her job.

“I had a meltdown,” Saalfield said in Manhattan Supreme Court on the first day of Mitchell’s trial for grand larceny and other charges.

Mitchell is also accused of duping a Singaporean immigrant, who was contending with loneliness and an unrequited workplace crush, out of $128,000.

Saalfield said Mitchell convinced her she had ruled an ancient city in Egypt and that her problem was her attachment to money. Mitchell’s solution: Give her $27,000, just to hold, as an exercise in parting with money, Saalfield recalled.

She gave Mitchell the sum, quickly regretted it and asked for a refund. Mitchell said the money wasn’t available, Saalfield said.

“Sylvia Mitchell wasn’t into cleansing spirits,” Assistant District Attorney James Bergamo told jurors in his opening statement. “She was into cleaning bank accounts.”

The defense says there’s no evidence Mitchell failed to provide the services for which she was hired. She could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the top charge against her.

After trying unsuccessfully to stop payment on the check, she called police, had a lawyer write letters and hired a private investigator to try to retrieve her money. Mitchell ultimately gave back about $9,500, Saalfield testified.

Lee Choong, a Singapore native who earned a master’s degree in business in New York, turned to Mitchell in 2007. Choong was grappling with professional demands and a personal problem: She was romantically interested in a co-worker, who didn’t reciprocate, according to prosecutors and Mitchell’s lawyer. Choong hasn’t yet testified.

Mitchell said Choong was surrounded by “negative energy” and could exorcise it by putting $18,000 in a jar that Mitchell would hold, Bergamo said. Choong ultimately gave Mitchell about $128,000 over two years, prosecutors and the defense said.

Mitchell repeatedly offered to repay Choong if she was dissatisfied, Aronwald said.

Psychic scams often go unreported, prosecutors said. Still, a number of fortune-tellers have faced criminal charges.

Janet Miller, a Manhattanite accused of swindling $600,000 from a woman by promising to rout evil spirits, pleaded guilty in May to grand larceny. She was sentenced to a year in jail.

Manhattan fortune-teller Tammy Mitchell served prison time after pleading guilty to grand larceny in 2010. The allegations included conning a woman out of $40,000 by pledging to rid her of a curse. Tammy Mitchell is no apparent relation to Sylvia Mitchell.

A Palmdale, Calif., soothsayer was arrested for investigation of extortion in 2011 after allegedly persuading a 12-year-old girl to steal more than $10,000 in jewelry from her family and throw it into a cauldron to lift a curse.

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