Rose Marks and her family of fortunetellers offered hope, but prosecutors said it came with a steep price.
The Florida family claimed to confer with gods, spirits and even Michael the Archangel to cure diseases and break curses, asking for and accepting jewelry, gold coins and luxury cars in return.
In all, authorities said, the family amassed a $40 million fortune from a psychic scam dating back 20 years.
They used "magicians' tricks" to frighten victims, who lived as far away as Denmark and Japan, to give them the money, prosecutors said. The victims included a best-selling author who gave $20 million.
Marks, 60, and eight family members pleaded not guilty last week. Their lawyers said they believe their Gypsy religion gave them the ability to heal psychically and that business was legitimate.
"They try to do that and they get paid for it," defense attorney Fred Schwartz said.
Marks moved her family to Florida 13 years ago. Her children and grandchildren moved into her posh, waterfront home in Fort Lauderdale after her husband died of brain cancer in 2006.
Often using the alter ego "Joyce Michael," the women of the family extracted valuables from their victims to support their lavish lifestyle, prosecutors said. Neighbors saw luxury cars coming and going, but saw little of the family.
Their nearby business, Astrology Life, advertised life coaching and $20 special readings.
In the scheme, prosecutors said, Marks was the matriarch, splitting her time between the family's Fort Lauderdale shop and another in New York next to the luxurious Plaza Hotel.
She billed herself as a clairvoyant who offered spiritual guidance to movie stars and Fortune 500 executives. Marks claimed that her ancestors have been spiritual advisers dating back 2,000 years, Schwartz said.
People came to her distraught over sick family members and busted romances. The victims, who prosecutors identified only by their initials, turned over money and other valuables.
If they didn't, Marks and her family warned that they "would contract terrible diseases, suffer horrible financial hardships, and endure terrible catastrophes," according to a federal indictment.
Sick loved ones would not recover and victims would remain haunted by evil spirits, they allegedly said.
Marks' attorneys identified the best-selling author as romance novelist Jude Deveraux, who they say first contacted Marks in 1991. Marks helped her when she was having problems conceiving a baby.
Later, Marks consoled her after her 8-year-old son Sam died in an accident in 2005, Schwartz said.
"There were times Rose would spend four or five days in her hotel room helping her," he said.
Deveraux did not respond to emails sent by The Associated Press seeking comment. She confirmed to the South Florida Sun Sentinel that she was a victim but declined further comment.
One 32-year-old victim was so severely distressed that he was hearing voices. Marks' daughter-in-law, Cynthia Miller, convinced him that Michael the Archangel required a sacrifice: 32 gold coins representing each year he "did not have faith." When the voices didn't stop, the victim asked for the $400,000 worth of coins to be returned. Miller said the coins were in a cemetery, but that only Michael the Archangel knew the exact location, according to the indictment.
Another victim was told that the women of her family were cursed by a jealous sister from previous generations and warned it was "getting worse with each generation," the indictment said. The fortunetellers promised she would get her money back three times over. The victim gave her mother's wedding veil and jewelry, including a ruby medallion, prosecutors said.
Mark's daughter-in-law, Nancy Marks, picked out a pricey Cartier watch and told the victim she had to pay for it so Marks could "turn back time and bring back love," prosecutors said.
Another victim was told sacrificial money was going to a health organization to feed children in Africa. Like most of the victims, he was told the money would be returned after it was cleansed. But when he called to get it back, his phone calls went unanswered, the indictment said.
A victim identified as Y.L. gave "large sums of money" to Nancy Marks to lift an ancient curse that had supposedly befallen her family 250 years ago, according to the indictment.
Defense attorney Norm Kent said prosecutors left out the time she flew to New York at the last minute to talk Y.L. out of suicide. He accused authorities of cobbling together a case using only negative stories. He said they ignored the help the Marks family offered to grieving clients.
Prosecutors said the family laundered the money through upscale auto businesses belonging to a friend.
In all, authorities seized Tiffany and Cartier diamond rings and watches, $1.8 million in gold coins, Harley Davidson motorcycles, several luxury cars, including a red Ferrari and a white Rolls Royce, as well as two South Florida properties.
Prosecutors said the victims talked with law enforcement and slowly realized that others were encountering the same kinds of problems with Marks and her family.
Schwartz said authorities talked the victims into realizing they were victims, and plans to ask the court to drop the charges, which include conspiracy and wire fraud. A judge denied bail to the family members.
Kent said the family had a legitimate business that was licensed by the city of Fort Lauderdale.
"Fortune telling is a protected activity," he said. "They have a licensed business that people went to."