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.
victim, identified only as "T.L.," told investigators that Nancy Marks had her come in once or twice a week for meditation and cleansings and she was told that any money she gave would "come back threefold." T.L. said she was told to write an amount of money on a handkerchief and leave it under her bed for a certain period of time.
"Clearly this was done to allow the universe to know how much money T.L. would like in return, from the universe, not Nancy," Gottlieb wrote. "If she were promised money in return from Nancy, there would be no reason to put the amount on a handkerchief and place it under her bed."
In federal court on Friday, attorney Norm Kent withdrew from the criminal case because he may end up being called to testify as a witness if it goes to trial. Kent and his law partner, Russell Cormican, were secretly recorded during phone calls they had with some of the alleged victims, Kent said. Acting on the instructions of investigators, the alleged victims had called the lawyers, who often represented the Marks family in civil matters.
Kent said he offered to settle disputes that clients had with the Marks family by providing "refunds that would represent the best deal for my clients and satisfy the alleged victims" but the people who spoke with him and were identified as victims in the criminal complaint would not agree on settlement terms with him.
Rose Marks' lawyer, Fred Schwartz, said unhappy clients were offered full refunds as part of a "money-back guarantee" the psychics offered.
Because the U.S. Constitution and the Establishment Clause guarantee freedom of religion, the lawyers argue that the government shouldn't be allowed to prosecute the Marks family for pursuing their beliefs. Courts have ruled that religious beliefs don't have to be "acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection," the lawyers wrote.
And taking money for services is consistent with other mainstream religions that use the donations for the upkeep of places of worship and to cover other expenses, the attorneys wrote.
Nancy Marks' behavior was no different from that of "religious teachers, preachers, and healers and demon chasers," evangelists and the Psychic Friends Network, whose shows are often televised on cable where donations are sought, the lawyers argued.
"Yet none of these individuals ... endure the constant derogatory label of being called a Gypsy for simply exercising their faith or practicing their chosen profession. Nor are they vilified and persecuted and prosecuted for espousing their beliefs and profiting ... even when their predictions fall short, miss the mark or are at odds with other genuinely accepted beliefs," Gottlieb wrote.
Prosecutors have not yet responded to the request and declined to comment.
A judge is expected to rule on the matter in the next several weeks after hearing from both sides.