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.