What a South Florida family of psychics did for 20 years was criminal fraud, federal prosecutors say. But the Marks family’s defense team says it was something very different — religion, free speech and a sincere belief in spiritual healing.
Nine members of the Fort Lauderdale family of Roma, or gypsies led by fortunetelling matriarch Rose Marks, were arrested in August on federal fraud conspiracy charges and accused of defrauding their clients of $40 million.
Defense attorneys are attacking the criminal indictment on several fronts, hoping to get the charges dismissed before a proposed trial date in November.
Lawyers have argued in court papers that the family members had a constitutionally protected right to practice fortunetelling and spiritual healing because it is a part of their religious belief system and fortunetelling is legally considered to be free speech.
The family is accused of preying on people at the lowest times of their lives, including exploiting bestselling romance novelist Jude Deveraux during several miscarriages and again after her 8-year-old son, Sam, died in a traffic accident in 2005.
The defendants’ lawyers hope to convince a federal judge that the charges are the latest example in a long international history of persecution of members of the Romani community as well as a lack of understanding about their beliefs and bias against them.
If the customers were unhappy, they were told they had a money-back guarantee.
However, the psychics would keep the cash and other valuables given to them and use it to support their lavish lifestyle, authorities said.
Luxury cars, an extravagant home and $1.8million in gold coins were among the items federal agents say the family purchased after they defrauded their clients.
The women of the family told clients that they “had the ability to tell the future, to cure people of disease, to chase away evil spirits from homes and bodies, to remove curses, and to cleanse the souls of clients and their families and friends, in exchange for money, jewelry and other things of value,” prosecutors wrote.
That would not be illegal, prosecutors said, but the family took it farther by taking money, jewelry and other items of value and promising that they would “cleanse” them of evil spirits and curses and then return the items. The behavior became criminal, prosecutors said, when the family refused to or failed to return the cash and valuables. [...]
Attorney Michael Gottlieb, who wrote the 24-page legal document about religious rights, argued that his client, Nancy Marks, 42, of Fort Lauderdale and New York City, did nothing but try to help people, in line with her personal spiritual beliefs. While Nancy Marks’ name is used in the document, other attorneys, including the one representing Rose Marks, have joined in the request.
“Nancy Marks’ conduct is rooted in her religion and spirituality,” Gottlieb wrote. “Based upon this prosecution, the defendant has lost her livelihood and has been unable to make a living using her historical religious and spiritual gifts.”
The nine family members are all barred from working in any kind of spiritual healing or psychic work while they are awaiting trial.
The criminal charges against accused ringleader Rose Marks and several members of her Fort Lauderdale family are still proceeding, but federal prosecutors and investigators have earned some criticism from the judge who is handling most of the pre-trial matters.
Describing the case as “slipshod” in a written ruling this week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ann Vitunac ordered prosecutors to turn over transcripts of some of the usually secret grand jury testimony to the defense. [...]
Prosecutors acknowledges some mistakes and took the case back to a federal grand jury, which approved a new version of the indictment in January. In court on Friday, prosecutors said they will take the case to a new grand jury for a third version of the indictment to correct more problems. It’s not unusual for a case to be presented more than once to a grand jury but the judge’s criticisms are uncommon.
A press release issued by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida in August last year says
The indictment, the result of “Operation Crystal Ball,” focused on a group of individuals claiming to be fortune tellers, psychic readers and spiritual advisors. In reality, however, these individuals defrauded more than a dozen victims out of more than $40 million.
The 61-count indictment charges the defendants with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud (18 U.S.C. 1349), substantive counts of mail fraud (18 U.S.C. 1341), substantive counts of wire fraud (18 U.S.C. 1343), and money laundering conspiracy (18 U.S.C. 1956). Each count carries a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, if convicted. In addition, if convicted, the defendants will have to pay mandatory restitution to the victims of their crimes. The defendants charged in the indictment announced today are:
Rose Marks, 60, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and New York, New York;
Nancy Marks, 42, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and New York, New York;
Cynthia Miller, 33, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida;
Rosie Marks, 36, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida;
Victoria Eli, 65, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Secaucus, New Jersey;
Vivian Marks, 21, of, Fort Lauderdale, Florida;
Ricky Marks, 39, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and New York, New York;
Michael Marks, 33, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida;
Donnie Eli, 38, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and New York, New York; and
Peter Wolofsky, 84, of Boca Raton, Florida. [...]
As alleged in the superseding indictment, the defendants held themselves out as fortune tellers, clairvoyants and spiritual advisers. In this way, they falsely represented to their victims that they could remove purported evil spirits or curses from their lives or that of their loved ones. The defendants falsely claimed that these evil spirits and curses were the cause of illnesses, financial problems, family problems and other difficulties faced by their victims.
According to the indictment, to execute the scheme, the defendants used magic tricks and false statements to frighten their victims into giving them large sums of money and other valuables, including jewelry and gold coins, to be “cleansed” of the evil spirits. The defendants told victims that they and their family would suffer terrible consequences, including diseases, hauntings, and financial hardships, unless they turned over their money and valuables for “cleansing” by the defendants. Although the defendants promised to return the victims’ money and valuables once cleansed, the defendants deposited the victims’ funds into bank accounts they controlled and used the money to pay for their personal expenses and promote their lifestyle.