Published October 11. 2013 7:00PM Updated October 11. 2013 11:47PM
New York — A psychic accused of bamboozling clients out of tens of thousands of dollars was convicted on today after a trial that peered into the legalities of a business built on mysticism and uncertainty.
Sylvia Mitchell of Mystic, Conn., was a fortune-telling fraudster who preyed on vulnerable people, drawing back a bead-edged curtain on a Greenwich Village parlor where customers were warned about "negative energy" and their problems were traced to past lives, prosecutors argued.
She "finds people's weaknesses, and she exploits them to her advantage," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney James Bergamo said.
Jurors evidently agreed, finding Mitchell guilty of grand larceny and scheming to defraud. But Mitchell, through her lawyer, said she did what customers paid her to do: try to help them, however unconventional the method. And, her lawyer suggested, who was to say it never worked?
Mitchell worked from a storefront hung with chandeliers, veiled with a flowered curtain and advertised with a sign saying "Zena Clairvoyant."
Lee Choong wandered in while working 80 to 100 hours a week at a New York investment bank, missing her family at home in Singapore and struggling with a one-sided workplace crush in 2007, Choong testified.
A skeptical but scared Choong gradually paid more than $120,000 as Mitchell told Choong she had "negative energy" and said Choong's family had harmed the object of her affection in a past existence but concluded the two had a future together, according to testimony and prosecutors. Mitchell vowed to perform various rites, and the two meditated together, but Choong's problems worsened: Her longed-for colleague complained she felt harassed, and Choong ultimately was fired.
Debra Saalfield, a ballroom dancing instructor from Naples, Fla., went to Mitchell after losing a job and a boyfriend within a day in July 2008. Mitchell told Saalfield she'd been too attached to riches in a previous life as a princess in ancient Egypt so she needed to prove she could part with money by giving Mitchell $27,000 to hold, Saalfield testified.
Saalfield, a single mother of three, tapped a line of credit on her house to write the check. She soon had second thoughts and asked for the money back, but Mitchell wouldn't return it, she testified. Mitchell ultimately repaid her about $10,000.
Robert Millet borrowed $7,000 from his father to give Mitchell $10,000 after she had him tie knots in a piece of red thread to symbolize "karmic blocks" in his life and then go home, clutch it and pray to get rid of the knots, he testified. The knots seemed to be gone when he reopened his hand, he said. None of the charges against Mitchell pertained to him.
Mitchell's defense argued that she promised only an effort, not a guarantee, to improve lives. Still, her lawyer pointed to Millet's experience.
"If you're skeptical," attorney William Aronwald told jurors in his closing argument, "what made the knots in the red thread disappear?"
He said Mitchell, 39, plans to appeal her conviction. Mitchell's sentencing is set for Oct. 29, with the top charge carrying up to 15 years in prison.