Post by Joanna on Nov 19, 2014 19:08:54 GMT -5
When Fortune-Telling Becomes a Crime
All of New York’s storefront psychics are technically breaking the law. But they’re rarely prosecuted, even when they disappear and leave victims short tens of thousands of dollars.
Every time Ali Beck walks from her office building in Midtown Manhattan to the nearest Starbucks, the 33-year-old passes an empty first-floor apartment unit halfway down the block. Until recently, its windows were dressed with cheap metallic knick-knacks and tinsel stars, and a gold plaque hung out front: “Psychic Readings by Tammy, $10 Walk-In Special.” A blonde woman with dark, heavy-lidded eyes could be spotted sometimes through the beaded copper curtains, and, on warmer days, her teenage daughter passed out flyers from a folding chair on the sidewalk. In March, however, the rooms inside went dark and the phone number that was listed on the sign was disconnected. Tammy had fled her post.
Beck (who asked that her real name not be used in this story) is a corporate executive, but her round, rosy cheeks and earnest eyes make her look younger than her impressive title and law degree might suggest. She has an easy laugh that cuts through her reserved demeanor, but she sounds incongruously world-weary when talking about the messy, painful divorce that drove her to seek out Tammy’s counsel last January. Over the course of seven months, she gave the fortune-teller $55,712.72 – enough to force her to sell the house she owned on Long Island and nearly decimate her credit – to rid herself of a “curse” Tammy said had been placed on her. At the ATM downstairs from her office, she made multiple transactions in a row, draining the contents of her savings account $800, $1,000, $1,400 at a time. When it came time to meet with Tammy and “digest” their work together, the psychic suddenly stopped calling and cut Beck off with a curt text message. She later refused to complete the job without another $10,000.
Even now, she hasn’t told anyone in her life what happened – not her close-knit family on Long Island, or the boyfriend she was with after separating from her ex. The only exception was a friend out in California who told Beck she was thinking about visiting a psychic. Beck felt compelled to warn her, though she didn’t divulge how much money was at stake.
She has sent in all the proof she can find, including bank records, phone records, a personal statement, and a list of losses. She has sent videos she recorded on a hidden camera, showing Tammy reviewing the “work” they did and the money it cost, plus others shot by two of Nygaard’s associates, who went undercover as first-time clients. She has also sent notice that Extra, the entertainment news show, has an on-camera confession on file, filmed as test material for a “gotcha”-style reality segment pitched this past spring. But none of it has led to an arrest.
Meanwhile, faced with the threat of legal action, Tammy closed up shop in Midtown and decamped to a new parlor on the Upper East Side. When Nygaard tracked her down there last month, she was peddling her services under the name “Sister Mary.” As soon as he found her, she absconded once again.
Beck had never tried therapy before – she didn’t like talking about herself and wasn’t inclined to pay someone to listen – but on January 18, 2013, she was ready to give it a shot. She had been having relentless nightmares about venomous fights with her ex-husband – night after night, replaying the worst parts of their breakup, when he left her for another woman. They had already been separated for months – long enough that she was starting to get serious with her new boyfriend – but when the divorce was finalized, she was walloped again by the sadness. So she looked online for a therapist and scheduled an appointment for the following week. Later that same afternoon, a dull, grey, post-holiday Friday, she went out for a coffee break and passed by the psychic’s window. She kept walking, as she always had, but then stopped and turned around, deciding to indulge her curiosity. Besides, she considered, $10 was a lot less than any therapist was going to charge. She pressed number 15 and the buzzer’s metallic warble ushered her in. At the first apartment on the right, a woman with brassy blonde hair and eyes big enough to give her angular face a slightly cadaverous look opened the door, accompanied by a dark-haired girl she introduced as her daughter – about 13, Beck guessed. The daughter sat Beck down for a palm reading, taking pains to sound like an adult as she spoke but faltering over one detail after another. Beck was ready to leave and write the session off as a waste of time, but as she headed for the door, she recalls what Tammy said to stop her: “I have a message for you.”
Tammy sat Beck down in the front room of the apartment, a small space furnished with gold statues, gold wall hangings, and a pair of gaudy, gold-plated upholstered chairs. Against the wall, a set of glass shelves held hefty candles and an assortment of colorful crystal balls. “You have a strong aura,” Tammy began, speaking gently. “When people look at you they’re jealous of you.” She rarely broke eye contact as she spoke, her words growing increasingly urgent as she continued, pausing every few sentences for a nod or a response. Eventually she hit upon Beck’s romantic troubles. She told her she knew what had caused them: broken chakras, the seven points around the body that the Hindu tradition says correspond to different energies. Someone who wanted to harm her had shattered her heart chakra, Tammy proclaimed, and ruined her ability to love and trust along with it. She also saw a “negative presence” that had been with her since the womb, a dark cloud around her that needed to be lifted. It was vital that Beck begin “spiritual cleansing” as soon as possible.
Beck considered her diagnosis. At a different time, the words might have sounded crazy, but at the rate she’d been having nightmares, something did feel very wrong. She felt like she was losing her mind, and Tammy’s urgency and confidence gave her hope she could be fixed.
The first step involved “eternal flames” – individual candles Tammy told her she would burn day and night at her church for nine days to cleanse Beck’s negative energy, at a cost of $100 each. Though she never went into specifics about her religion, Tammy spoke about God frequently and, when pressed, would offer only that she was a “spiritual person.” At first, Beck balked at the price, but Tammy was persuasive and encouraged Beck to meditate and pray while the work was in progress, visualizing the life she wanted: one without the stress of bitter divorce. Tammy also invited Beck to come by the shop a few times a week if she’d like, and to call or text at any time.
Beck began visualizing and praying that night and canceled her therapist appointment soon after, wanting to believe she had found a better solution. Things were going well until the day Tammy said she had “opened” Beck up for “spiritual surgery” and discovered how much more work actually needed to be done. This time Tammy would need “platinum” candles. They cost $1,000 each, and, like the first set, would be burned at her church. Beck never saw so much as a wick. Still, Beck took out cash advances, withdrew funds from her savings account, and purchased Visa gift cards on credit to keep up with her payments. Soon, her readings turned more ominous and the demands escalated. Tammy said that the woman that Beck’s husband had left her for had put a curse on her. She warned that the curse would prevent her from ever having a happy relationship, and gave her a one-time, all-inclusive cost for healing her chakras, cleansing the negativity, and ridding her of the curse: $20,000.
Fortune-telling crimes are not easy cases to prosecute. To begin with, there’s the question of what, exactly, “fortune-telling” is; under the law, it’s an umbrella term covering everything from astrology and Tarot to numerology and necromancy, but many practitioners see this as a gross over-generalization of vastly different spiritual and occult practices. (Should the people paid to analyze horoscopes, for instance, be classed alongside someone like the infamous “Long Island Medium,” who claims to commune with the dead?) Even when it comes to the more unorthodox practices, there’s the issue of whether they should be protected under the First Amendment. California’s Supreme Court struck down an ordinance banning fortune-telling nearly three decades ago, deeming it an unconstitutional violation of free speech. According to the court’s ruling, an astrologist who is hired to predict the future has just as much right to charge for his or her services as does a stock picker or political pollster. While the ruling applies only in California, a handful of other courts have since followed suit in response to claims brought by fortune-tellers and the American Civil Liberties Union. They, along with advocacy groups like the Association for Astrological Networking, hold that the U.S. Supreme Court’s consistent opposition to prior restraint means that blanket bans on fortune-telling should hold no weight under the Constitution.
Even so, in New York state, fortune-telling is still a class B misdemeanor, punishable by 90 days in jail or a $500 fine. The law prohibits anyone from claiming to the ability to tell fortunes, exorcize curses, or manipulate occult powers except “as part of a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement.” Deciding what qualifies as entertainment is tricky, however, and as the law is little known and rarely enforced, practices that hover on the borderline of legality thrive throughout New York City. In Chinatown and Flushing, traditional Chinese kau cim practitioners try to predict the future by shaking out wide, flat sticks. In Brooklyn, African American Hoodoo (aka Conjure or Rootwork) is taught through workshops, lectures and apprenticeships. In Jackson Heights, Indian families regularly seek advice from astrologers as they make matches and plan important events. And people from all backgrounds seek out the services of psychics, energy healers and New Age coaches. In all these cases, practitioners claim to have special powers and many truly believe they do. To prove they do not would be a Sisyphean task.
But fortune-telling fraud – a long and highly orchestrated con designed to sap huge sums of money from trusting victims – falls into a different category than fortune-telling alone, and it can lead to far more serious charges. In recent years, landmark verdicts have convicted self-proclaimed psychics of crimes ranging from grand larceny to federal wire fraud that resulted in multi-year prison sentences on top of the standard restitution orders. Since 2013, at least five such cases have passed through Manhattan courtrooms. Four of the psychics pled guilty, agreeing to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars to their victims in exchange for no jail time, although two of them eventually ended up behind bars after failing to make their payments on time. The last of these four was sentenced in June; to avoid the same fate, she’ll have to keep up with her restitution checks until her probation expires in 2019.
The highest-profile case, though, was that of Sylvia Mitchell, a Greenwich Village psychic who worked out of a well-appointed storefront called Zena Clairvoyant on Seventh Avenue and Bleecker Street. Mitchell pled not guilty on all charges, opting to go to trial rather than take a plea deal. The jury didn’t buy her defense – that she had fulfilled all her promises to her clients despite the unconventional service she provided – and last October, she was convicted on 10 counts of grand larceny and one count of scheme to defraud, having bilked more than $130,000 out of two victims. On top of being ordered to pay full restitution, she was sentenced to five to 15 years in state prison, one of the harshest sentences ever doled out for a fortune-telling scam. Mitchell’s trial looked much like any other fraud case: Prosecutors set out to prove the fortune-teller had knowingly lied to victims in order to take their property. They subpoenaed her bank records and compared them with those of the victims, matching deposits in one with withdrawals from the others. They noted each time she promised to pay back clients with money she didn’t have or lied about buying expensive candles for rituals. In the end, while curses, tarot cards and “karmic cleansing” may have been the psychic’s stock in trade, the verdict came down to something as banal as a bank balance. As Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a May 2013 statement, commending law enforcement for arresting a fraudulent spiritual advisor: “Larceny is larceny, no matter what form it takes – fraud by a spiritual advisor is no different than fraud committed by an attorney, an accountant, or any other person who gains an individual’s trust in order to steal from him or her.”
For many, if not most victims, however, the nature of these frauds is so humiliating that the shame of coming forward outweighs the desire to get justice. Nygaard, the private investigator, says he receives dozens of calls from people such as college professors, CEOs, doctors and lawyers who feel their reputations are worth more than, say, the $200,000 they were scammed out of by a psychic. Even those who do want to go to the police often fear being laughed out of the precinct – a justifiable concern according to the many victims who have gone in to file a police report, only to be told their complaint isn’t a criminal matter because they gave their money away willingly. From there, a victim has three options: walk away, seek civil action (adding legal fees to his or her tab), or press the police until they take a report. But even then, the criminal justice system doesn’t necessarily work in the victim’s favor. Says Bob Geis, a retired NYPD detective who formerly specialized in fortune-telling fraud and other confidence schemes, “Prosecutors don’t like these cases because they’re afraid the victim is going to look stupid.”
When Tammy asked Beck for $20,000, Beck tried to back out, saying she didn’t have that kind of money. Tammy cautioned her that she or someone she loved could get sick or even worse if she left the work unfinished. The warning stoked religious fears – Beck grew up Christian and knew the Bible forbids meddling in the occult. “I see a way of you making this work,” Tammy would say. She asked about the divorce settlement – money that she said was surely cursed – but Beck explained that not only did she not get anything from her ex, but she was still the one paying for his car. Beck did, however, own a house on Long Island that she had been renting out since the divorce. When she mentioned it, Tammy said that sometimes people sold their homes and sacrificed everything to pay for the service she was offering – but once they did, they were done with it forever. Are you fucking kidding me? Beck thought. I’m not selling my house for this.
Although Beck held off on the one-time cleanse, she ended up spending more than twice that amount on Tammy’s day-to-day tasks. Her ATM withdrawals continued with an urgency and regularity that felt almost like progress, and she dashed out of work at odd hours of the day whenever Tammy’s insisted that timing was vital. When she had to do “pyramid work” – meditating in the psychic’s living room under a copper frame – she would often duck out of the office to do it rather than go after work and raise her new boyfriend’s suspicions by coming home late. Finally, after promising time and time again that Beck’s next payment would be the last, Tammy announced that it was time to “digest” their spiritual work. They met for the last time on July 16 and made plans to go over the work the next Monday. By Wednesday, Beck hadn’t heard from the psychic and was starting to get an uneasy feeling. She sent her a text: “I haven’t heard from you, are we done here?” Tammy responded with a single word: “Yes.”
For the first time in seven months, Beck’s phone no longer buzzed with urgent messages about ATM withdrawals or spiritual cleansing. After putting in so much time and money, the abrupt, anticlimactic end to it all sent her reeling. She still hadn’t told anyone else about the work, having been warned that it would fail if she did, so she looked online for help. She Googled some of the rituals she and Tammy had done and articles started popping up that seemed to confirm her worst suspicions, one after another detailing cases of fortune-teller fraud. One of the stories about an arrest quoted a private investigator in New York, so she picked up the phone and dialed.
Nygaard, 54, seems to get a thrill out of looking the part of the private eye. When business calls, he shows up in a dark suit and tie, a fedora perched jauntily atop his cueball head. The effect is equal parts Humphrey Bogart and Humpty Dumpty. He got his start in uniform and at one time was assigned to investigate a rash of home-improvement scams targeting the elderly (including his own 92-year-old neighbor). He arrested five men known as the Parks brothers – American Romani (better known as “gypsies”) who were wanted around the country for various confidence schemes. That case gave Nygaard a taste for out-conning the con, and he joined the National Association of Bunco Investigators, a group of active and retired law-enforcement agents who track non-traditional organized crime around the country. Through the weekly intelligence logs and bimonthly bulletins that the Bunco group send out, Nygaard learned about the weird, wild world of confidence schemes: not just home-improvement scams but three card monte games, pigeon drops and an ever-expanding array of online and email cons. When he retired in 2008, Nygaard moved to Boca Raton and picked up a private investigator’s license as a bulwark against the boredom of sitting on the beach all day. He says his first job came by chance after regaling two new female acquaintances, a doctor and a nurse, with stories from his law enforcement days, including one about the Parks brothers’ arrest. He exchanged business cards with the women and less than 15 minutes after they parted ways, his cell phone rang. The doctor told him she had been ripped off by a psychic and hired him to help.
The con artist in question was Gina Marie Marks, a well-known Florida fortune-teller whose pseudonymous memoir Miami Psychic had recently been published by Harper Collins. When she was convicted, Nygaard says, he started getting calls from people all over the country who had seen his name in the news, telling him they, too, had been victims of fortune-telling schemes. Some called from as far as Singapore and Hong Kong with stories about being ripped off while studying or traveling in the States. He took on a couple more fortune-teller fraud cases in New York, California and Florida, was named in more news articles, and – largely through the power of Google’s algorithm – soon became the go-to guy for an old and oft-forgotten crime. “I guess I fill a niche and as far as I know I’m the only one in the country doing it,” he says jovially, in his thick Long Island accent. “I have so much work. I’m overwhelmed.” He’ll listen to anyone who calls, he says, but he’s selective about the clients he takes on. Building a case requires hard evidence like bank and phone records, hours of interviews, and a victim who is willing to risk his or her name getting out if the case ever goes to trial. His fee varies – he’s pulled in lucrative commissions from six-figure restitution settlements, but charged Beck a one-time retainer fee of $5,000 and has since funneled several hundred of it back into gathering evidence against Tammy.
In New York, five of his cases have resulted in criminal convictions. In April, he attracted media attention when he took on a tough case in Los Angeles. The police were unwilling to make an arrest, so Nygaard had his client lure the psychic to San Jose, where the local law enforcement had a record of prosecuting fortune-teller fraud. As the client led the fortune-teller into an escrow office with a promise to transfer funds, the San Jose police appeared and made the arrest.
Nygaard’s clients often call him after they’ve already gone to the police and been told the case only qualifies as a civil matter. After he helps compile evidence, Nygaard goes back to the precinct with the client to file a criminal complaint. Says Nygaard, “The first thing I get is, ‘Who does this guy think he is? He’s going to tell us what to do?’ Sometimes there’s this resentment there.” Several signs have made him optimistic that the law might come around, however, including the outcome of a federal case earlier this year, which convicted nine members of a Florida fortune-telling family for a $25 million scheme that ensnared a well-known romance novelist, Jude Deveraux. According to Gregory Ovanessian, director emeritus of the Bunco squad and a retired San Francisco detective, “In more and more jurisdictions, law enforcement, whether through education or realization, has seen that – wait a minute, it is a crime, and something should be done, not only try to restore the victim, but to do something about the thief.”
In the meantime, Nygaard has no qualms about being a thorn in the side of anyone he feels still isn’t taking these cases seriously enough – or officers who he suspects, more seriously, of “shit-canning” reports, to use police parlance, in order to keep crime statistics low. “I try to start off diplomatic, but I end up being a pain in the ass.” His preferred tactic lately has been writing lengthy, impassioned letters to the New York City Police Commissioner and other high-ranking officials, with mixed results. On one occasion it seemed to do the trick: He and a victim put their complaints in the mail and three days after they were delivered, the psychic was in handcuffs. In Beck’s case, however, the move may have backfired.
The best fortune-tellers – the fraudulent ones, at least – have a lot in common with the best police interrogators. Ovanessian, the Bunco squad director, says that, “psychics, in many cases, have better skills in terms of reading people and picking up on body language than police. They’re very astute.” He estimates he has been involved in more than a hundred investigations of fortune-telling fraud, and has reviewed more than a thousand as a Bunco member. Almost all of them have followed the same pattern: The psychics begin with an inexpensive “cold reading,” in which they deliver generalized statements with grave authority, continuing until they hit upon something that triggers a reaction – barely perceptible though it may be. They then feed back the information they’ve picked up, gradually persuading clients of their powers. Some clients will roll their eyes and go home, but others are more vulnerable to the psychic’s promises.
Most victims fall prey during times of trouble in the areas of romance, money, or health – sick relatives, recent breakups and unrequited loves are common laments. The psychic manipulates clients into believing that a curse has been placed on either them or their families, and that the psychic is the only one who can remove it. “Proving” the existence of the curse may involve simple sleight-of-hand tricks: In one common version, the victim is told to bring the psychic a fresh egg, which is surreptitiously swapped out for one that has been tampered with. When the victim is told to break the egg, it smashes open to reveal a frightening mess of hair and blood (or at the very least, convincing red dye). According to the Bunco squad, the bujo – or egg-curse scam, as it is sometimes known – is overwhelmingly linked to the Romani, although their detractors liken this association to racial profiling and many balk at the “gypsy fortune-teller” stereotype, freighted as it is with a long history of persecution. Few, however, will argue that telling fortunes is a deeply ingrained part of Romani culture. The group, which has its origins in India, has a nomadic history. (They were initially called “gypsies” by Europeans who mistakenly pegged them as Egyptians.) Fortune-telling was well suited to the group’s transient lifestyle: Its practitioners, typically women, would arrive at a festival or fair and practice on gadje, as the non-Roma are known in the spoken Romani dialects. If they were driven out of a village or opportunity arose elsewhere, they could pack up, move, and resume their trade in another town. Experts put the number of Roma living in the United States at approximately 1 million, with 100,000 living in New York state. No official estimates are available, however, for the number of professional drabardi, or fortune-tellers. A single offica (the storefronts where they work and often live) can take in about $300,000 per year, estimates Geis, the retired NYPD detective, and strict territorial rules dictate that these must be spaced at least three blocks away from one another. In less densely populated areas, this may mean there’s room for just one offica in town.
In New York City, fortune-telling shops can be found all the way from Wall Street to Mott Haven and Astoria to Bay Ridge, their telltale neon signs more common in some neighborhoods than Starbucks. These days, a handful can be found at any given time for sale or rent on Craigslist and Instagram, where accounts like @offica_for_sale post listings from around the country, advertising a palatial “psychic gallery” in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, alongside a bungalow off the highway in Dalton, Georgia. Sellers trumpet advantages like proximity to foot traffic from restaurants and sports arenas, great gazdas (landlords), and ample neon signage. The insider language makes it clear that gadje need not apply.
There are movements in both the US and Europe working to dispel the criminal stereotypes that dog the Roma people, but as with Italians, their reputation is frequently damaged by a criminal subset of the community that operates much like traditional Mafia families. The Florida family that was convicted in federal court this year made most of its millions through fortune-telling schemes, but other families are said to diversify with sweetheart swindles (a con in which a young woman woos an elderly widower and gradually saps his bank account dry, leaving him broke and broken-hearted), life insurance fraud and other regular rackets. Throughout New York City, members of other traditional cultures have been involved in similar schemes. Last year, detectives in Chinatown reported a rash of grifts with spiritual overtones against elderly immigrant women. Two women would work in tandem: One would approach the victim to ask for directions to a certain healer or fortune-teller, and the other, pretending to be a stranger, would offer to take them both there. Then the two of them would persuade the woman to put her valuables in a bag and hand it over to be blessed. By the time she noticed the bag was switched, the scammers would have disappeared.
On September 16, 2013, Beck and Nygaard went to the 17th precinct, housed at the base of a slick office tower in Midtown East, just a block from where Tammy was still open for business. They had spent weeks going through every detail – the text messages, the rituals, the ATM withdrawals, the conversations – compiling the evidence into an organized binder and flash drive, which they brought with them to the station. They didn’t get at all the reception they had hoped for – a fact Nygaard later made clear in a letter sent to the upper echelons of the NYPD, criticizing the detective assigned to the investigation. The NYPD declined to comment, deferring to the DA’s office, but according the account detailed in the letter, Detective Holger Diaz dismissed the case as a probable civil matter after a look at the police report. A week later, though, he changed tacks and requested the binder and flash drive, saying they would be making an arrest after all.
Beck thought he was trying to be helpful, at least at first. When she went in to meet with Diaz alone, she says she felt exposed and intimidated by the stark interrogation room. She struggled to keep her composure as she told her story but left feeling reassured, having been told that the case was being classified as a second-degree larceny. One week passed, then another, and another. Beck called, but Diaz said he needed to talk to the DA before making the arrest. Nygaard’s emails to the detective, friendly at first, became increasingly terse, but Diaz never responded. On October 21, Nygaard sent the complaint letter. “Both the crime victim, Ms. X and I are extremely dissatisfied by the manner in which Detective Holger Diaz has handled Ms. X’s case,” he wrote. “Namely Detective Diaz’s failure to arrest the perpetrator, Tammy Vlado, in a timely manner despite being aware of where she lives and perpetrates her fortune-telling schemes.”
Three days later, Beck was called down to meet with an assistant district attorney with the Special Prosecutions Bureau, which handles organized crime, white-collar crime, and fraud. It was an odd sequence of events, Beck thought, since Tammy still hadn’t even been arrested. “I could tell right off the bat she wasn’t taking me seriously,” Beck says of Om Gillett, the assistant district attorney. Gillett told her that Nygaard hadn’t done her any favors with the letter – probably true, she now concedes. It was also implied that her case was going to sit at the bottom of a pile. “She told me she could be frank like that with me because I went to law school.” Gillett declined to comment for this story. Together, Beck and Gillett went through the spreadsheet that itemized every withdrawal and charge-card purchase, but Beck struggled to what prove each payment was for, exactly – whether it was pyramid work or candle purchases or spiritual cleansing. “Work” was too vague to build a case on, Gillett said, and she told her that they needed more evidence to make an arrest. Beck left the room in tears.
That afternoon, however, Tammy sent Beck a text. Nygaard had told her that getting back into contact with Tammy would turn the case into an ongoing crime and give them the grounds to request an undercover sting. Both Gillett and Diaz demurred, however, saying they’d have to ask their bosses. The next day, Beck got a call from Gillett saying the case was closed and her department would not be investigating further. Dismayed and with few options left, Beck hatched a plan with Nygaard: She would go back in wearing a hidden camera and get Tammy to admit to everything. They want evidence? We’ll give them evidence, she thought.
The day before last Halloween, Beck went to see Tammy again for the first time in months, wearing a pair of glasses with a spy cam rigged into the frame. She knew what she wanted to get on tape, but didn’t know how she’d feel about being back at Tammy’s place again. “Hey,” Beck said as the door creaked open, her voice soft and sad, as if she were greeting a friend at a funeral. “Hey, how are you doing? How are you?” came the response in a single, tumbling breath.
Beck led the way to the front room, joking about her klutziness and a recent minor injury. It sounded light and friendly until they sat down and Tammy’s tone turned solemn. “How’s everything going? How’s everything at home?”
“Uhhm, well, I mean I guess that’s why I’m here. It hasn’t been going so well,” Beck said, telling Tammy that she had been thinking about all the work they had done and the money it had cost. “I just don’t feel like it’s worked,” she said, nudging Tammy to defend her powers. If she did, Beck hoped she’d at least be able to nail Tammy on New York’s fortune-telling statute. “Do you have the … ability?” she eventually asked, grasping to find the right word.
“Do I have the gift? Do I have the power? The energy? Yes, 1,000 percent.” Tammy tried to explain that she had only been looking out for Beck by cutting her off – that they had cut corners when she missed payments or couldn’t meditate for a full hour during work and now the work was only 80 percent done. For the other 20 percent, Beck asked, how much would that cost? Tammy estimated $10,000.
In the following weeks, two other visitors surreptitiously recorded their sessions with Tammy. One, a retired cop, fed the psychic a sob story about separating from his wife and was told an “evil eye” had been placed on him and he would need to pay $2,500 to remove it. Tammy even offered to accompany him to the ATM. The other, a former client of Nygaard’s, went in for a reading and was told that her love chakra was shattered and her father’s jealous business partners had placed a curse on her family. For her work, Tammy told her she would need nine “eternal flames” at a cost of $1,000 each.
A few months after sending in the hidden camera videos, Nygaard got a call from an acquaintance, a television producer who said she was working on a test segment for Extra that might be up his alley. The premise, as Nygaard understood it, was to have con artists face the people they’d ripped off in on-camera confrontations – kind of like To Catch a Predator for scammers. He immediately thought of Tammy.
The producer set the bait – she visited Tammy twice and, after being told that she was cursed, agreed to give the psychic a $10,000 Hermès handbag as payment to have it removed. On March 9, 2014, she lured Tammy to the corner of 50th Street and 2nd Avenue, where she said her car was parked with the pricey handbag on board. In fact, Tammy was greeted by a camera crew of eight or so waiting outside a Starbuck’s. Beck huddled in her parka out of the shot, per her agreement with the producer not to be identified. She had been assured the segment wouldn’t air, that it was just test material for network execs. Still, she recorded the audio on her phone in case Tammy said anything that might persuade the authorities to reopen the case.
“Do you feel terrible?” the host asked, after haranguing Tammy for the scam.
“Yes,” the psychic answered.
“Would you like to pay her back the money?”
“Yes,” she said again.
“You’re going to pay her back?” he pressed. “You’re going to pay her back every single cent?”
The host warned that his crew would stake out her building every day until she did. Tammy said she would go and get the money from her apartment and they agreed, although no one expressed surprise when she didn’t come back out. Instead, they yelled from the front door, calling her a coward and a fraud and a coaxing Beck to do the same. Tammy still didn’t come out. The crew packed up while Nygaard called 911 and readied himself for another fight. “We’ll be back, Tammy!” called the host.
But that was in March, and Beck hasn’t heard from the show since. She still wonders sometimes what happened to the footage. Diaz and Gillett never subpoenaed it from the network – she’s not even convinced they watched the hidden camera videos that were submitted along with police reports from Nygaard’s two associates and the television producer.
“Hopefully, with everything you’ve given us now, hopefully we will talk to the DA again and we can go forward with it,” said lieutenant Kevin Moroney, commanding officer of the precinct’s detective squad, when he took the reports. “[Tammy] is ripping people off, there’s no doubt about it. It’s a scam.”
Gillett, however, did not re-open the investigation, and when one of Nygaard’s associates called to follow up on his report, she said that she would not disclose whether she had seen the videos – and, furthermore, she remained unconvinced that he was actually a crime victim at all, since he knew what he was getting himself into when he went into Tammy’s shop. Her tune still didn’t change when, in June, another Manhattan psychic was convicted of grand larceny and scheme to defraud. The prosecutors in that case had used hidden camera footage featuring the same former victim who had volunteered to help Beck. In a brief for that case, the prosecutor likened the footage to evidence obtained in undercover drug busts or online pedophile stings, arguing that it was the psychic’s intent, not the victim’s state of mind that determined whether the fraud charge applied. The psychic was sentenced to pay full restitution, and shortly thereafter, her offica went up for rent on Instagram.
It’s been nearly two years since Beck first walked into Tammy’s gold-ornamented apartment, and by now her life has, for the most part, resumed its usual cadence. The nightmares have subsided and her credit has been repaired, though she’s frustrated and fed up and doesn’t know how much hope to hold on to when it comes to getting back the money she gave Tammy.
Nygaard, however, is indefatigable. He has several other cases in the works, including one in Manhattan, but follows up regularly with the detectives assigned to investigate Tammy. A draft of the letter he’s considering sending to the Police Commissioner and the Manhattan DA now runs close to seventy pages. The last time he saw Tammy, she was in her new basement shop, 28 blocks north of where Beck first met her, offering readings under the name “Sister Mary.” That space, too, has since been vacated (according to Google Street View, it has changed signage three times in under a year), but not before another one of Nygaard’s associates went in for a reading.
In a recording of her visit, which has since been collected as evidence, you can hear Tammy urging her new client to stay for a full-length reading: “It will tell you everything you need to know. Because somebody is causing you a lot of blockages. Somebody is causing you a lot of interference. Something is standing in the way of your happiness. And you need to find out what’s going on so we can fix it.” Tammy speaks in a furtive, staccato stream, the current picking up as she hits her marks: the negative energy, the evil eye, the nine eternal flames of light, $1,000 a piece. “Are they guaranteed to work?” the client asks.
“I guarantee you. My hand to God, what I say, I’m going to do. How I’m going to help you and how I’m going to heal you and what I’m going to do for you – you’re never going to forget me.”
The client only has $200 cash on hand, and says she will run to the ATM to get out what she can.
“Ok, go. Come right back right away, because I have to go to work. I’m getting ready now, you see? I have to go to work immediately,” she insists. “Everything happens for a reason,” she intones as the client, who will never return, scribbles down a fake name and number. Before she reaches the door, Tammy adds, “Try to get out as much as you can.”
Source: Hillary George-Parkin, The Atlantic, November 14, 2014.