FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- What a South Florida family of psychics did for 20 years was criminal fraud, federal prosecutors say. But the Marks family's defense team says it was something very different — religion, free speech and a sincere belief in spiritual healing.
Nine members of the Fort Lauderdale family of Roma, or gypsies led by fortunetelling matriarch Rose Marks, were arrested in August on federal fraud conspiracy charges and accused of defrauding their clients of $40 million.
Defense attorneys are attacking the criminal indictment on several fronts, hoping to get the charges dismissed before a proposed trial date in November.
Lawyers have argued in court papers that the family members had a constitutionally protected right to practice fortunetelling and spiritual healing because it is a part of their religious belief system and fortunetelling is legally considered to be free speech.
The family is accused of preying on people at the lowest times of their lives, including exploiting bestselling romance novelist Jude Deveraux during several miscarriages and again after her 8-year-old son, Sam, died in a traffic accident in 2005.
The defendants' lawyers hope to convince a federal judge that the charges are the latest example in a long international history of persecution of members of the Romani community as well as a lack of understanding about their beliefs and bias against them. Roma have been targeted through much of their history and were murdered in huge numbers during the Nazi Holocaust.
According to the indictment, the Marks women provided psychic healing — at a cost — assisted by the men of the family, who provided security and other services at storefront businesses near the Galleria mall and on Southeast 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale as well as across the street from Manhattan 's famous Plaza Hotel.
The women of the family told clients that they "had the ability to tell the future, to cure people of disease, to chase away evil spirits from homes and bodies, to remove curses, and to cleanse the souls of clients and their families and friends, in exchange for money, jewelry and other things of value," prosecutors wrote.
That would not be illegal, prosecutors said, but the family took it farther by taking money, jewelry and other items of value and promising that they would "cleanse" them of evil spirits and curses and then return the items. The behavior became criminal, prosecutors said, when the family refused to or failed to return the cash and valuables.
When federal agents arrested the family, they seized hundreds of items of jewelry, more than $1.8 million worth of gold coins, luxury cars and a fancy home overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale, all paid for with the proceeds of the fraud, according to prosecutors.
Attorney Michael Gottlieb, who wrote the 24-page legal document about religious rights, argued that his client, Nancy Marks, 42, of Fort Lauderdale and New York City, did nothing but try to help people, in line with her personal spiritual beliefs. While Nancy Marks' name is used in the document, other attorneys, including the one representing Rose Marks, have joined in the request.
"Nancy Marks' conduct is rooted in her religion and spirituality," Gottlieb wrote. "Based upon this prosecution, the defendant has lost her livelihood and has been unable to make a living using her historical religious and spiritual gifts."
The nine family members are all barred from working in any kind of spiritual healing or psychic work while they are awaiting trial. They were initially jailed and then placed on house arrest but are now free on bond, court records show. When they were released from jail, they asked for permission to attend more conventional religious services at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Fort Lauderdale and the Christian Life Center, also in Fort Lauderdale.
The legal argument spells out some widely-held Romani beliefs but also draws comparisons with legal rulings about the rights of people who are Amish, Wiccans, Krishnas, Mormons, Catholics and Jews.
During conversations recorded by or at the direction of federal investigators, Nancy Marks frequently spoke about religion, God, "guides," the reading of numbers, "the Trinity" and spirits, Gottlieb wrote. Nancy Marks is a kind of "shaman," he wrote, who believes she can communicate with good and evil spirits.
In the Romani language, a fortuneteller is called a "drabarni," which several experts have said translates as a "healer" and only women are believed to have the power to combat negative energy.
Members of the sect, including Nancy Marks, "believe in good and bad energy, which originates from God (Del), the Devil (Beng), curses (amria), bad omens (prikaza), and the spirits of the dead (mule). According to the Gypsy belief, if a person dies with feelings of resentment or hostility toward the living, then he or she will return from the 'other side' to haunt them with bad energy," Gottlieb wrote.