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New York psychic guilty of stealing thousands from clients

NEW YORK — A jury found a Manhattan psychic guilty Friday of swindling two women out of $138,000 in a case that looked at the fine distinction between providing an unusual service and running a confidence scheme.

The fortune teller, Sylvia Mitchell, 39, who plied her trade at the opulent Zena Clairvoyant psychic shop in Greenwich Village, scowled as the verdict was read, reaching up only once to dab an eye.

After the verdict, Justice Gregory Carro of Manhattan Supreme Court said he considered Mitchell, who lives with her two teenage children in Connecticut, a flight risk and ordered her held in jail. She faces up to 15 years in prison when she is sentenced on Oct. 29.

Outside the courtroom, Mitchell's longtime companion, Steve Eli, had sharp words with her defense lawyer, William Aronwald. "You should have let her testify," he said.

The jury convicted Mitchell on 10 counts of grand larceny and one count of scheme to defraud. The jury found her not guilty on five other grand larceny counts.

During a weeklong trial, prosecutors portrayed Mitchell as a clever swindler who preyed on distraught people, promising them that she could alleviate their troubles through prayer and meditation to remove what she called "negative energy" and rectify problems that arose from their "past lives."

But her techniques also involved taking large sums of money from her clients, supposedly for safekeeping and to buy supplies for charms and rituals. Most of that money was never returned, according to testimony.

One witness, Debra Saalfield, who runs a marketing business and is a competitive ballroom dancer, said she had turned to Mitchell after a bad breakup and a job loss in 2008. Mitchell convinced her that her problems stemmed from her past life as an Egyptian princess and that she was too attached to money.

She convinced Saalfield to give her $27,000 for safekeeping as an exercise in letting go of money. Saalfield soon became suspicious, demanded her cash back and called the police. Mitchell eventually repaid Saalfield about $9,500, but kept the rest.

A second witness, Lee Choong, a Singapore native who earned a master's degree in business in New York, went to Mitchell in 2007 when she was upset over an unrequited infatuation with a co-worker. Choong gave Mitchell about $128,000 over two years; she did not recoup any of it, despite a promise of a full refund if her life did not improve.

Aronwald argued that Mitchell had held up her side of her bargain with the women, providing prayers, meditation and rituals aimed at alleviating their problems. "She provided the services that were contracted," he said.

New York psychic guilty of stealing thousands from clients 10/12/13 [Last modified: Saturday, October 12, 2013 1:45am]
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