When Fort Lauderdale fortune teller Rose Marks goes on trial Monday, accused of masterminding a $25 million fraud, the case will offer a rare peek inside the secretive world of those who say they have psychic powers.
The amount of money involved in what prosecutors say was a 20-year scam and the celebrity status of the main witness — best-selling romance novelist Jude Deveraux, who they say lost $17 million — have brought notoriety to the case.
Though it's not the first time a "psychic" has been criminally charged with fleecing customers, trials in such cases are uncommon, records show. Most fortune tellers accused of fraud have reached plea agreements with prosecutors or agreed to pay back what their clients said they owed.
But Marks insists she is innocent. While prosecutors use the words "conspiracy" and "fraud" to describe her work, Marks uses the words "insight" and "intuition."
In an exclusive interview about the case, Marks told the Sun Sentinel in December that she did nothing wrong.
"I gave my life to these people. We're talking about clients of 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. We're not talking about someone I just met and took all their money and ran off," Marks said.
Eight family members who were arrested with her in August 2011 have pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Though her relatives are not expected to testify against the 62-year-old Marks, prosecutors will try to convince jurors that she was the ringleader and should be held responsible for her family's actions as well as her own.
Prosecutors say the family used their storefront businesses across the street from the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan and in upscale neighborhoods in Broward County to recruit and then defraud customers, some of whom were unwell or going through personal traumas — "emotionally vulnerable, fragile … or gullible."
She is accused of financially manipulating Deveraux as the author dealt with troubled relationships, a series of miscarriages and the tragic death of her young son, killed in an ATV accident when he was 7 years old.
The name "Joyce Michaels" was used by Marks and some of her female relatives when they met with clients or spent hours on the phone with them.
Marks and her family convinced some of the walk-in clients that their problems were caused by curses that had dogged their families for generations and that the family could perform rituals and other services to remove those curses, prosecutors said.
While they acknowledge that fortune telling is not against the law, "any more than performing magic or card tricks is not unlawful, or telling lies is not, per se, unlawful," prosecutors say that Marks and her family committed fraud by making false promises and not returning money they said they would give back.
The case has not gone smoothly for prosecutors.
The investigation has been dogged by controversy, with at least two federal magistrate judges making unusually harsh criticisms of the investigative team — using words such as "slipshod," "deficient" and "shameful" to describe the government's handling of the case.
Marks' defense says she is the victim of bias against the Roma, also known as Gypsies, and that investigators drummed up the charges against her after some of her long-term clients experienced "buyer's remorse."
"I think from a credibility standpoint, their [victims'] stories don't add up," said Marks' attorney, Fred Schwartz. "My client was not committing fraud, she believed she was helping people."
Marks told the Sun Sentinel that she earned the money Deveraux paid her during their 17-year friendship. She said she was a personal assistant to Deveraux and negotiated a fee of about $1 million a year when she agreed to give up her profitable business to work almost exclusively for the wealthy author, whose work includes more than 35 books on the New York Times bestsellers list.
Marks also said that she helped Deveraux write some of her novels.
"I was her inspiration and gave her insight on Romani mysticism and beliefs in the after life and religion and the psychic world and the spiritual world and romany theology and … it took a lot of time and effort," Marks told the newspaper.
Prosecutors responded by filing additional charges against Marks, accusing her of filing false tax returns and not reporting the income, essentially going after her criminally under two theories — that she defrauded the money or earned it legitimately, but didn't pay taxes on it either way. The latest version of the 15-count federal indictment charges Marks with mail and wire fraud conspiracy, money-laundering conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, money laundering and the income tax charges. If convicted of all charges, sentencing guidelines could send her to prison for about 18 years, her lawyer said.
Marks' claim that she was Deveraux's assistant may have been bolstered recently when prosecutors revealed to the defense that Deveraux's accountant reported the payments she made to Marks between 2004 and 2009 as "business expenses" on back tax returns he filed to the IRS on behalf of a corporation Deveraux controls.
Other potential problems for the prosecution include allegations of questionable business ties between Deveraux and two investigators who worked on the case. Deveraux provided a $35,000 business loan to a gym partly owned by the lead investigator on the case, retired Fort Lauderdale Police Detective Charlie Stack, court records show. Stack said he was unaware of the loan to his business partners and returned it as soon as he found out about it.
Prosecutors also were forced to admit earlier this year that Deveraux had paid the wife of Fort Lauderdale Police Detective Darren Ogden between $11,000 and $16,000 to help Deveraux organize her financial records. Ogden did not respond to requests for comment. Fort Lauderdale Police are conducting an Internal Affairs investigation into the allegations, according to spokeswoman Detective DeAnna Greenlaw.
The defense also found evidence that detectives and a prosecutor helped Deveraux in a court case concerning money she owed her ex-husband — an allegation later confirmed by the prosecution.
Other problems identified by magistrate judges handling the case included grand jury testimony peppered with ethnic stereotypes about Gypsies, or Romani people; and some "victims" in an earlier version of the indictment whom agents had never contacted to confirm that a crime had occurred.
The prosecution later dropped some charges and reduced the estimated loss from $40 million to $25 million. But prosecutors have been haunted by a remark they made at the first court hearing in the case, when they said investigators had to visit some of the family's customers a number of times and "hit them on the head" to "break the spell they were under" before they agreed that they had been defrauded.
One male "victim" filed a sworn affidavit saying he had not been swindled — but instead was a satisfied client of Marks' sister, Victoria Eli, who was his "personal life coach" for 12 years. According to prosecutors, John Cleary, of Pennsylvania, paid Eli more than $500,000.
"I rely on her advice and counsel and believe it has enabled me to live a very productive life," Cleary said, according to court records. He also said he felt pressured by federal agents when they eventually spoke to him after the indictment was filed.
Marks said the culture she grew up in firmly believes that many women have psychic abilities and that she used her God-given talent, Romani religious beliefs and her common sense to help her clients. She said she used tarot cards and taught clients to put positive "energy out into the universe." She denies performing any ritual cleansing of gold coins, clearing of curses or consulting with Michael the Archangel, as prosecutors allege.
Still, more than a dozen alleged victims, who claim they were defrauded out of tens of thousands to millions of dollars by Marks and her family, are expected to testify against her in the trial, which may last a month or more. Along with Deveraux, expected witnesses include other former Marks family clients from the U.S., Europe and Asia.
Marks' lawyer said he thinks the trial may come down to a credibility test between Marks and the alleged victims — many of whom she never spoke to or even met, though prosecutors say money they gave to her family members was deposited in her accounts. Schwartz said prosecutors are overreaching and Marks should not be held criminally liable for the crimes her family admitted committing or for "services" she provided to her own clients over many years.
"If you believe that someone waited 17 years to ask for their money back after paying $1 million a year, then my client maybe has a problem," defense attorney Schwartz said. "We think it's a little late to ask for a refund."
He said he thinks some of the former clients have financial problems and want their money back after investigators convinced them that was possible.
"The defendant is attacking the government and its investigation, rather than attacking the evidence that will be presented against her," prosecutors said. "This, of course, is an old tactic."
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in federal court in West Palm Beach.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 954-356-4533 or Twitter @SentinelPaula