They Don’t Call Them Gypsies For Nothing

“My recommendation is: don’t go to a fortuneteller at all. A psychiatrist will be less expensive in the long run.” -Dallas Police Department swindle unit investigator S. M. Haines



AT FIRST, it seems nothing more than a harmless palm reading from a mysterious gypsy fortuneteller with a TV Guide stage name like Miss Christian, Sister Lola or Mrs. Vino. After all, for five or 10 bucks, who can resist a little peek at what’s in the cards? At least that’s what Coy McCurdy thought before he went on his bizarre journey into the supernatural world.

Last July, McCurdy, a 45-year-old inventory control supervisor for a Dallas computer company, was feeling a little depressed because of a split with his girlfriend. So he called on Sister Newman, a local gypsy fortuneteller, for a little help. Although Sister Newman was a self-professed teller of the “past, present or future” and advisor to “bankers, politicians, athletes and entertainers on all affairs of life, business, marriage, courtship,” McCurdy was interested in another of her advertised specialties- “reuniting the separated.”

Police say McCurdy’s encounter with Sister Newman is a textbook example of how fortunetellers rip off despondent clients. Fortunately, McCurdy saw the light-somewhere between the time he was instructed to sleep with an egg under his bed and the time Sister Newman told him she needed $3,000 to make life-size sculptures of him and his girlfriend out of imported beeswax. After dropping $135, McCurdy sensed he was being swindled and went to police. He spent two days conferring with Sister Newman as police listened through a hidden microphone. Sister Newman was arrested last August 13 on felony theft by deception charges.

As is the case with many psychics, McCurdy paid a modest $20 for his initial visit, which entitled him to a palm reading and allowed him to pose one question to the psychic. The question, police investigators say, tips off the fortuneteller as to whether a person is troubled. “If somebody asks a question like ’Will the Cowboys will beat the Packers this Sunday?’ the fortuneteller will dismiss it [and the client] as unimportant,” says Dallas Police swindle investigator W.J. Hughes. Hughes says fortunetellers instead like to hear such questions as, “Will I ever be cured of my disease? Will I win back my girlfriend? Will I locate my missing brother of 10 years?”

The problem with fortunetellers, police say, is that unlike a psychiatrist or marriage counselor, they have an answer for any problem. Most often the problem is brought on by a curse or spell put on the client. “And what is the root of all evil?” asks Haines. “You guessed it-money.”

Fortunetellers go to great lengths to convince clients of their psychic powers. Almost magically, they can pull a “demon” from your body, make your spit turn a glass of water blood-red, or cause knots from a rope to disappear in thin air. Police claim such feats are the result of years of training in sleight-of-hand tricks, which gypsies call the “bujo,” or big con. Once a client is convinced the fortuneteller has supernatural powers, the subject of money will somehow come up. Often the psychic will ask a client to bring money (lots of it) and the two will burn it in a sophisticated ritual.

Police encountered one victim whom a fortuneteller advised to rid herself of all her cursed money by burying it in a graveyard at midnight. The gypsy also told the victim she must be naked while burying it and that she needed to speak seven languages, because the spirits would try to wrest the money from her as she performed the ritual. Since most of us don’t like parading around cemeteries naked, fortunetellers who use this ritual are happy to take the money and bury it for you.

Are the fortuneteller’s victims, well, maybe a brick short of a load? Lacking in the old intelligence quotient? Not necessarily. Last year, Dallas police officers confiscated a client book during a search of a fortuneteller’s business. When they began making phone calls to find potential witnesses, they found that the list included a Houston debutante who had been swindled out of $38,000, a 39-year-old Dallas computer programmer with a master’s degree, two Dallas university professors and a Dallas police officer in search of a love potion.

The arrest of Sister Newman last August was the first such arrest by Dallas police this year. Catching the crooked psychic is rare, because most con victims don’t want to suffer public embarrassment. “And when we arrest a fortuneteller, she’ll tell us she’s going to put a curse on us,” says investigator Hughes. “She makes it tough for us to get to her other victims because she’ll tell them to meditate for three days, not to watch TV, read the papers or answer the phone.”

“The results are often tragic,” says investigator Haines. “Most of the time the money can’t be replaced.”

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