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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Psychic Sylvia Mitchell: Cleansing Spirits and Cleaning Out Bank Accounts

     In October 2007, 33-year-old Lee Choong, a native of Singapore who worked 80 hours a week at a Manhattan investment-banking firm, walked into the Zena Clairvoyant Psychic parlor on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village. Ms. Choong had sought help from psychics before. In 2006, she had paid $10,000 to a fortune teller doing business in New York's SoHo district. Choong came away from that experience feeling cheated. This distraught and lonely woman had obviously not learned the obvious truth that psychics are not only fakes, they are thieves who prey mostly on gullible, desperate women.

     In her opulent Greenwich Village storefront parlor, 34-year-old Sylvia Mitchell, a resident of Mystic, Connecticut (no kidding) offered to give people who walked into her cheesy shop an introductory "reading" for the bargain price of $75. The first session was in reality a combination sales pitch and hook designed to sucker the customer into subsequent psychic sessions that cost $1,000 each. Since only believers availed themselves of psychics, it didn't take much for one of these phony practitioners to close the deal. If these naive and troubled women had any money when they walked into Zena Clairvoyant's shop of financial horrors, they eventually walked out broke and broken. (It's amazing that cops raid whore houses but let these joints operate.)

     As a prologue to Lee Choong's first reading, she unburdened herself to the psychic. Choong said she had fallen in love with a co-worker at the investment-banking firm who did not feel the same way about her. Could Zena help? Of course Zena could help. Here was the problem: in one of Choong's past lives a member of her family had hurt the co-worker. This had created "bad spirits" that had carried forward to the present. But not to worry. Because Choong and this man at the investment-banking firm were meant for each other, psychic Mitchell would bring them together by ridding Choong of the bad spirits that had kept him away.

     During their first meeting, psychic Mitchell cautioned Lee Choong that cleansing her of those evil spirits would not be easy. It would take a lot of time, and as we all know, time is money.

     Over the next year and a half, Lee Choong paid Sylvia Mitchell more than $120,000. The psychic said she needed the money to pay for evil spirit removal supplies. (Apparently you can't get this stuff at Home Depot.) If the bad spirits were not vanquished, and Choong's life didn't get better, Michell promised to return the money. (One didn't have to be a psychic to predict that Choong's life would not improve, and that she would not get her money back.)

     In 2008, notwithstanding psychic Mitchell's efforts, Lee Choong lost her job at the investment-banking firm. When the unemployed woman, in April 2009, asked for a psychic refund, Sylvia Mitchell told her that within a period of four months Choong would get a new job, one that paid $95,000 a year. That, of course, didn't happen. Choong did not get her refund, either.

     In September 2012, Lee Choong went to the police.

     In August 2008, while Sylvia Mitchell was separating Lee Choong from her savings, Debra Saalfield, a single mother of three entered the psychic shop on Seventh Avenue South. The former competitive ballroom dancer from Naples, Florida, an employee of a Manhattan dance company, had lived in the West Village with her boyfriend, a man she wanted to marry. They broke up, she moved out, and a short time later, she lost her job at the dance company. With her life in shambles, Debra experienced what she called an emotional "meltdown." Rather than seek professional help, and perhaps medication, Saalfield turned to a psychic.

     From psychic Mitchell, Debra Saalfield learned that in one of her past lives she had been an Egyptian princess. (Haven't we all.) As part of the ruling class, Saalfield had enjoyed great wealth. As a result, in her present life, she had become too attached to money. Yes, it was that filthy lucre that was ruining her life. To prove her diagnosis, Mitchell asked Saalfield to write her a check for $27,000. Without that wealth, Saafield's life would improve. If it didn't, Mitchell would return every penny. Saafield took out a loan on her house.

     After Saalfield realized she had been the victim of a confidence scam, she asked the psychic to return the $27,000. Mitchel, over a period of months, gave back about half of what she had taken.

     In 2011, while running a psychic shop in her hometown, Mystic, Connecticut, the authorities accused Mitchell of bilking a Catskills woman out of $9,000. This prompted Zena Clairvoyant to leave the state. A short time later, while running a game in Florida, the police arrested her for stealing $27,000 from a woman who had paid for "consultations" by Zena Clairvoyant.

     In New York City, detectives working out of the 6th precinct arrested Sylvia Mitchell in February 2013 on charges of fortune telling, scheme to defraud, and grand larceny. On the grand larceny charge alone Mitchell faced up to 15 years in prison. The psychic made bail and went back to work in Greenwich Village as Zena Clairvoyant. No doubt she was predicting an acquittal.
   
     The Mitchell trial commenced on September 30, 2013 in a Manhattan criminal courtroom. During the jury selection process, Assistant District Attorney James Bergamo asked members of the panel this question: "Does anyone believe that psychics are real?" (I'm not sure, from the prosecutor's point of view, if you want believers or nonbelievers on the jury. Nonbelievers might condemn the victims as willing suckers who got what they deserved. Believers might see the case as nothing more that a consumer's rights conflict.) In response to Bergamo's question, several members of the jury panel raised their hands as believers. One of these prospective jurors said, "I'm curious about the future." Another said she had a friend who visited a psychic as "a happy-hour thing." A third member of the panel said she had a friend who read palms.

     In his opening statement to the twelve people who ended up on the jury, prosecutor Bergamo revealed his strategy of portraying Choong and Saalfield as vulnerable women taken advange of by a cold-blooded con artist. "The defendant," he said, "is not in the business of cleansing spirits. She's in the business of cleaning out bank accounts."

     When it came time for defense attorney William I. Aronwald to address the jury, he said, "You will not hear any evidence in this case that she [Sylvia Mitchell] did not provide the services that she was contracted to provide them." In other words, Choong and Saalfield had gotten what they had paid for--they paid for nonsense and that's what they got.

     On Thursday, October 3, 2013, following the direct testimony of prosecution witnesses Saalfield and Choong, defense attorney Aronwald, carefully trying not to come off as a bully, put these pathetic women under cross-examination. Regarding the psychic's so-called "readings," Aronwald asked Debra Saalfield to explain what a reading was. "A reading of what?" he asked. "Palms? Tarrot cards? You paid $75 for a reading, but what was read?"

     "I don't know," replied the witness.

     "When she told you that you had been an Egyptian princess, did you believe her?"

     "No."

     "Did you laugh?"

     "No."

     To Lee Choong, attorney Aronwald asked, "What led you to see a psychic instead of a licensed therapist?"

     "I needed answers," Choong replied.

     "In the eighteen months you were involved with Sylvia, there was no improvement in any of these areas, correct?"

     "Yes."

     "You continued to give her this money?"

     "Yes."

     On Monday, October 7, 2013, a prosecution witness named Rob Millet took the stand and testified that he sought the defendant's help after he learned that his boyfriend was moving back to Texas. To make matters worse, Millet's mother took ill. The psychic, after gaining Millet's confidence, said she had to have $10,000 to give him the quality of help he required. Millet, after borrowing $7,000 from his father,  paid Mitchell her fee. He got nothing in return.

     Attorney Aronwald, after resting his case without putting his client on the stand, gave his closing statement to the jury. He said that Sylvia Mitchell had done what her clients had paid her to do--try to help them. Yes, her methods were "unconventional," but so what?

     Prosecutor Bergamo, in his final statement to the jury, said, "The defendant finds people's weaknesses and she exploits them to her advantage."

     On Friday, October 11, 2013, the jury found Sylvia Mitchell guilty as charged. On November 14, 2013, the judge sentenced Mitchell to five to fifteen years in prison. (She already knew that, of course.)

     What this case and others like it reveal about modern society is disturbing. In an era in which we are overwhelmed with information, Americans are losing the ability to draw logical conclusions, apply common sense, and distinguish what is real from what isn't. We live in a culture of magical thinking devoid of objective truth. The loss of common sense and logic to irrational, magical thinking is perhaps one the the greatest dangers facing our country. A nation that can't think straight, make rational decisions, and apply common sense solutions to its problems, is doomed.


     

3 comments:

  1. "We live in a culture of magical thinking devoid of objective truth." Right! Objective truth is hard to find in any form.

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  2. I believe that I passed that place in the village loads of times. That place was there forever, it was an institution. But what did it represent? So many people make their way to the big city looking to make their fortune. Often far away from family and friends, a sense of loneliness and isolation can ensue. Unsure who to trust or what to do, people get drawn into a situation that promises answers. I think these places take advantage of the transient population of people that pass through cities, the young and innocent or people on the fringes of the society.

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  3. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis.

    ReplyDelete