Psychic Scams Steal Millions From Unwitting Victims
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Annie had three evil spirits inside her. Well, actually, two: One was pregnant with a cute little baby evil spirit.
Annie, a tough, athletic 31-year-old, learned of the problem during a walk near her Manhattan apartment, when a slightly chubby, blond teen dressed in a long, loose-fitting shirt stopped her on the street. The girl said that she was a psychic and that she detected spirits dwelling in Annie's body.
"She was very persistent and spoke in a strange accent," Annie recalls of that fateful summer day in 2010. "She said... 'I see something special in you. You were born under a lucky star.'"
The girl, later identified as Peaches Mitchell, wouldn't stop talking. And what she said struck a chord with Annie, who was reeling from an emotionally taxing divorce, career woes, and excruciating pain in her ankle from a past injury.
Peaches guided Annie into a Chipotle restaurant and continued to babble. "She probably had no idea that she had found the perfect victim," Annie says.
Peaches handed Annie a flyer listing her psychic abilities and an address in Kips Bay, a largely residential neighborhood that includes much of New York University.
Less than a week later, Annie visited the fortuneteller at her modest apartment. Peaches explained the curse was all Annie's stepmother's fault, according to a sworn statement Annie later provided to police.
Annie's life was a shambles. So she continued seeing Peaches, and a few weeks later, at another session, the psychic rubbed an egg all over her head and body while chanting spells. Then she cracked the egg open to reveal a dead baby snake.
Horrified, Annie spit in a jar of what appeared to be clean water, which immediately became a thick, blood-like mass right before her eyes. That, Peaches said, proved the curse inside Annie had come into contact with the water.
There was only one way to finally kill the evil spirits, Peaches allegedly told Annie, but it would cost $14,700 in cash. Annie scrounged up as much money as she could, but it wasn't enough. So Peaches pressured Annie to ante up, according to Broward County court papers.
The ruse went on for years, and in October 2013, Peaches allegedly instructed Annie to wire $10,000 to two bank accounts to trick the evil spirits. Annie soon learned the accounts belonged to Peaches' husband, but she kept paying.
Peaches also allegedly asked for $2,125 in gift cards from Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's, as well as a $7,900 Cartier watch. Annie complied and sent the items to Peaches' address, which by then had changed to Lighthouse Point in Broward. (New Times is not using real names for Annie or other crime victims in this story.)
Repeated attempts to contact Peaches and her husband by phone and email for this story were unsuccessful. Peaches was arrested this past March and pleaded not guilty. Her attorney, Russell Cormican, declined to comment, and her husband was never charged with a crime.
Annie finally determined that she had been scammed. She was devastated. There was her divorce, the pain, and then being taken advantage of in such spectacular fashion. But then help arrived from an unexpected quarter. "I was determined to get justice," Annie says. "Bob Nygaard gave me instant relief because I stopped feeling so helpless, and he did not pass judgment on me."
Bob Nygaard is decked out in Humphrey Bogart, film-noir-inspired detective gear as he enters the lobby of his Lego-stack-like Sea Ranch Club of Boca building, nestled on a narrow strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway in south Palm Beach County. He wears a dark-gray fedora, a chalk-striped navy suit, and slightly tinted, black-rimmed retro-square eyeglasses.
The stout but impeccably groomed 55-year-old private detective worked on the Peaches Mitchell case for more than three years, he says. Annie reached out to him in 2013 after finding his name online.
He told her he had worked scores of psychic fraud cases. "No other victims are more maligned than victims of psychic fraud," Nygaard says in an unmistakable New York accent after sitting down at a table. "The embarrassment of being swindled plays right into the hands of phony psychics."
Nygaard's background particularly suits him for this line of work. Born in Queens and raised in the Long Island suburb of New Hyde Park, he hails from a family of self-made, hardworking businessmen. At 8 years old, he would hang out in his grandfather's warehouse. "I would be bored and complain to my dad about how I ain't got nothing to do," he recalls. "And my dad would say, 'Whaddya mean? Here's a broom. There's always something to do!'"
New York was a stew of languages. Once, Nygaard recalls, a foreign truck driver asked him for help. "The guy could barely speak English and couldn't read the map," he says. "So I would sit in the truck next to him and shout out directions."
In high school, he was an athlete, playing on the varsity baseball, lacrosse, and basketball teams.
Nygaard initially wanted to follow his father into business, so when he moved to Dallas for college, he majored in entrepreneurship at Southern Methodist University. Two years after graduating in 1983, though, he enlisted in the New York Police Academy. Being a cop, he says, had been his father's dream. He wanted to make his dad proud.
"Bob is such a loyal friend," says Richard Gambino, who has known the younger Nygaard since kindergarten. "He's always been very smart, very intelligent."
In 1985, Nygaard joined the New York City Police Department as a transit cop. It was the peak of the 1980s crack epidemic. "I was very active," he says, "lots of arrests." But his zealousness as a lawman rubbed many of his fellow officers the wrong way. "I got along with the criminals better than I did with my colleagues," Nygaard laughingly admits. "I was like oil in water at the police department."
In 1987, he moved from transit to street patrol in Nassau County, where he spent most of his career. "I wouldn't be the PI I am today without all the lessons I learned on the street," he says. In the late stages of his career, Nygaard became versed in the intricacies of sweetheart swindles, insurance fraud, and fortunetelling scams. He joined the National Association of Bunco Investigators — a trade organization for fraud cops — in 2007.
That's also the year he retired from the Nassau County Police Department with a full pension — available to officers after 20 years of service — and moved to Boca, where he had vacationed for much of his life. He quickly became bored, so after only a couple of months, he took a test and qualified for his private investigator license.
"I relished being able to finally wear clothes that reflected my own personal style, like fedoras and trench coats," he says. "I had been restricted to wearing a police uniform for more than 20 years, and my personal style just coincidentally blended perfectly with my new life's work."
After initially trying his hand at helping individuals collect unclaimed money, he settled on the psychic-hunting niche. The single, never-married man came across his new trade by chance when he was trying to land a date.
"I was talking to these two women — a doctor and a nurse — at the now-closed Neighborhood Sports Bar & Grill in Boca," he recalls. "I was just sharing my war stories with them, and I ended up giving them my PI card."
Nygaard says he was simply emulating his film idol, George Raft, who played a gangster in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot and had real-life outlaw friends such as Bugsy Siegel. "What I like most about the old detective movies is that the line between the good guys and bad guys is clearly defined," he says. "Yet the films involve a detective who is often battling demons of his own and who is enchanted and conflicted about a femme fatale with whom he becomes romantically involved and wants to save."
Nygaard, who keeps his gun of choice — a Baby Glock — holstered at his hip most of the time, thought his femme fatale would be the doctor.
"I had told the women about all the types of scams I knew about, including psychic scams, and we went our separate ways afterwards," he recalls. "Fifteen minutes after we left, I got a call... The doctor asks me to meet up with her at a Mobil gas station, and I was a little confused but agreed to see her there."
At the station, the doctor made an unexpected confession. "I didn't want to say this in front of my friend," Nygaard recalls the doctor telling him, "but a psychic has taken over $90,000 from me."
That psychic, it turns out, was Broward County's notorious Gina Marie Marks. The now-44-year-old Marks had tricked three victims out of more than a half-million dollars. She had wheedled $312,000 from one of those victims, Stacy — a young Miami attorney — by convincing her that a Haitian family maid had placed a vodou curse on her in childhood.
Stacy, Marks said, had 99 evil spirits inside her, according to the affidavit Stacy provided to the Broward County Sheriff's Office.
In 2009, Marks told Stacy her trouble with men was the result of the Haitian maid having performed a ritual involving the burial of half an animal carcass on Stacy's parents' property and the other half on a Colombian mountaintop. Marks said she needed thousands of dollars to pay for her trip to Colombia and for specialized navigational equipment to locate the burial grounds and reverse the curse. A month after making these claims, Marks said she had made the trek to Colombia and had witnessed the death of her guide, who was bitten by a giant mosquito.
Marks also said she had learned Stacy was part of a special group of people called the "Group of 12," who represented the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ. Stacy was convinced that she was to be the mother of twins, one of whom would be responsible for an epic, victorious battle against the Antichrist.
Stacy became skeptical at one point and hired Nygaard, but she continued to believe in Marks. So the private investigator located Stacy's Haitian childhood maid, who Marks had claimed was dead. Then Nygaard videotaped the maid and played the tape for Stacy. He also showed her recent photographs of Marks with Stacy's mother, who Marks had also claimed was dead.
It was then, Nygaard says, that Stacy fully came to terms with the elaborate ruse.
For months, Nygaard explains, Stacy had kept a jar she had spit in covered with a black pillowcase under her bed. She ate only red fruit, which represented blood, because Marks had told her she was in dire need of a spiritual transfusion. She also provided Marks with hair and urine samples and would rub gel all over her body and then cover herself in plastic wrap and run six miles. She would recite prayers while lying on the floor with her arms outstretched as if she were on a crucifix. She even stopped taking birth control pills so she could get pregnant and give birth to the savior of humankind.
And there were echoes of the Peaches Mitchell case. Marks instructed her victim to rub an egg all over her own naked body and then bring the egg to a meeting. The psychic then cracked the egg open to reveal a curse: a live black spider crawled out.
Terrified, Stacy delivered thousands of dollars in cash in pillowcases to Marks. The alleged psychic claimed she would cleanse the money and return it to Stacy. She never gave back a dime.
During a four-year investigation, Nygaard contributed evidence to Broward County law enforcement authorities, helping to trigger convictions of organized fraud and grand theft in 2010. Marks was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Another case Nygaard worked was that of Betty Vlado, a New York street-corner psychic in the mold of Peaches Mitchell. In May 2014, she persuaded Debbie, a young professional in her early 30s, to buy a rock. The psychic said it was part of a meteorite that had been smuggled out of NASA headquarters. It had strong healing properties, Vlado said, according to a criminal complaint, but it would cost $14,500.
The so-called meteorite turned out to be a chunk of crystal quartz worth maybe $150. In May 2014, Vlado was sentenced to one to three years. Today the rock is coffee table decor in Nygaard's apartment.
"The tenacity and relentlessness Bob showed as a cop, he took right into his private investigation business," says his childhood friend, Gambino. "It's awful what these psychics do, just awful. Bob left the police force and didn't rest on his laurels, and he's making a difference."
Why is there so much psychic fraud?
On its "Scams and Safety" webpage, the FBI specifically warns senior citizens to be on the lookout for common fraud schemes targeting nest eggs and real estate. Also, con artists exploit the politeness of Baby Boomers — their inability to say no, for example — and their diminishing memory.
Perpetrators are often involved in other scams. "The women who are part of these criminal enterprises commit fortunetelling fraud, sweetheart swindles, shoplifting, and insurance fraud." Nygaard says. "It's organized crime and usually a family affair."
Recently, the FBI asked Nygaard to provide an expert statement in a psychic-scam case. But he refused. "I don't know if psychic powers exist," he says. "I told the FBI that they are approaching the problem the wrong way. What's at the heart of psychic fraud? Theft, larceny, fraud!"
Using a real-life example, Nygaard elaborates. "If a psychic forces someone to buy a very expensive watch 'to turn back the hands of time' and promises to destroy the watch with a hammer or throw it into the ocean, and in fact either destroys the watch or throws it into the ocean, there's no crime!" he exclaims. "But if that 'psychic' takes the watch to a pawnshop and gets cash for it, that's fraud — that's theft."
Nygaard alleges only about 5 percent of officers actually give a damn about enforcing the law. The other 95 percent? "They're just there to collect a paycheck," he says. This apathy, he contends, allows fortunetellers to mercilessly exploit their prey. Instead of taking reports from psychic-con victims, the typical cop robotically shoots back, "That's a civil matter," he says.
But over the past nine years, he has amassed enough evidence to help authorities prosecute 25 fake fortunetellers on behalf of 40 clients, Nygaard says, and has recovered more than $3 million for those who have hired him.
Why would anyone fork over so much cash and property? A possible answer: Victims aren't in their right minds when they succumb to psychic fraud. "It all boils down to three things," Nygaard explains, "love, money, and health." When a combination of those elements goes awry, faculties are impeded, he says.
Bob Nygaard (left) dresses like a film noir detective. Peaches Mitchell (right) is charged with grand theft.
Photography by Ian Witlen / TheCameraClicks.com; Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office
After Annie had been dealing with Peaches Mitchell for almost four years, she counted up her losses. They came to about $32,000, she says. In March 2014, Peaches disappeared. Her phone was disconnected. (Records show it was the third time in as many years.) Annie suspected the woman had moved to Florida. Peaches had previously given Annie two addresses: one in Boca Raton and another in nearby Lighthouse Point.
Indeed, public records show that same year, Peaches moved into a quaint three-bedroom, three-bathroom house in Lighthouse Point owned by a woman named Lourdes Harrington. She says Peaches and her husband trashed the place. "They were such liars," says Harrington, who sued the pair for overdue rent and damages in 2015. There were rotten eggshells throughout the home and raw egg and red wine splattered all over the master bedroom walls, according to Harrington. "My husband and I would get calls all the time from the neighbors complaining about heavy traffic in and out of the house all throughout the night and into the wee hours of the morning."
Harrington reached a settlement through mediation with the couple, but, she says, "I haven't received a penny. It was a hard experience. It's been two years, and they still owe me money."
Back in New York, Annie also came to believe she'd been duped. She sent Peaches a letter warning that if the psychic didn't respond, she'd go to the police. Meanwhile, she began searching "psychic fraud" online, and Nygaard's name kept popping up.
So one day in 2015, she left Nygaard a phone message. She also called a bunco investigators group and was told she should file a police report. When she went to the station, though, officers quickly dismissed her case as a civil matter, she says. "The NYPD gave me a hard time when I first reported the crime."
Then she heard back from Nygaard. "Bob called me when I got back from the police station," Annie recalls. She explained her predicament, and he agreed to help her in exchange for an upfront fee and a percentage of recovered funds. Despite having already lost so much money to psychic fraud, she says, "hiring Bob gave me comfort."
Nygaard helped Annie organize the evidence and accompanied her to the police station, she says. Then officers agreed to refer her case to the district attorney's office. But that was to no avail. "The DA jerked me around for over a year and never resolved the case," she says.
Joan Vollero, communications director in the Office of the District Attorney of New York City, declined to directly comment on Annie's case but said the DA's office "has successfully prosecuted numerous individuals on grand larceny and related charges over the years for scamming victims." Vollero added that the DA "has partnered with news organizations that cater to the Spanish-speaking and Chinese-American communities to raise awareness of... psychic and evil-spirits scams."
Annie collected evidence for three years, providing as much information as she could to Nygaard. Then, this past March, the investigator tracked Peaches down to a psychic parlor across from a Denny's on U.S. 1 in Lighthouse Point. He called the cops. On March 24, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office picked Peaches up outside a CVS in Royal Palm Beach, a half-mile from the Hidden Harbor apartment community where Nygaard alleges she was staying. The arrest warrant included a charge of grand theft. A heavily edited police report says she was extradited, likely to Broward, where the warrant had originated. (The phone number she gave the arresting officer for the police report is disconnected.)
She was released on a $1,000 bond a day after being booked, according to the sheriff's blotter. This past March 28, she pleaded not guilty to grand theft, which is a third-degree felony and carries a maximum of five years in prison. She was arraigned May 31.
Annie says she has moved on and doesn't really think about Peaches much anymore. She speculates the psychic didn't really have a choice about her sketchy profession. "I occasionally feel a mixture of resentment and pity," she says. "Peaches was indoctrinated into her lifestyle as a child and raised to be a con artist. It's pretty shitty that that's her life."
But Annie would like justice to be served. "I want to see her go to jail and I want her to pay me back," she says.
How could Annie have been gullible enough to believe all of Peaches' wild claims? "I was in such a deep state of depression, so easy to influence, and didn't have a support network nearby," says Annie, who immigrated from China when she was only 5. "I've definitely learned my lesson," she says.
Nygaard says he is working on 30 other cases in more than a dozen states. Though primarily based in Florida, he's been spending a lot of time in New York, where he has an apartment, and throughout California. "Cali is a major hotbed for psychic fraud right now," he says.
He appeared on ABC's 20/20 several years ago and recently has begun pondering a higher profile. He's heard from ABC and Vice, among others. "I have mulled over the TV offers," he says, "but I am leaning towards a book or movie deal."