SUNNYVALE — A woman is in a South Florida jail cell awaiting prosecution in Santa Clara County for an alleged “psychic scam” on a vulnerable and superstitious Sunnyvale divorcee, bilking her out of more than $800,000 over the course of a decade for protection against voodoo curses and misfortune.
Peaches T. Miller, 33, of Miami, was arrested Saturday in Florida’s Broward County after Santa Clara County authorities issued a warrant for her arrest on suspicion of grand theft and extortion, with an “aggravated white collar crime” enhancement because the amount involved surpasses half a million dollars. If her extradition is approved at a hearing Thursday, Miller is expected to be transported to California within two weeks.
Nationally, “evil spirit” scams and the like have garnered national headlines in major cities like New York, Chicago and Boston. In San Francisco alone, scammers exploited victims out of $2 million in a string of cases last year. Those cases involved larger rackets, but in the case of the Sunnyvale woman, it was someone working solo and likely exploiting victims that number beyond her.
Deputy district attorney Cherie Bourlard said the local case is one of many fortunetelling scams that come across her desk and should be a cautionary tale for those who might consider turning to a self-proclaimed psychic or fortuneteller for anything more than entertainment.
“This is a big business and it’s all rip-offs,” Bourlard said. “If you have personal problems and have to spend money, seek counseling or a credible therapist.”
According to court documents, the Sunnyvale victim — whose name is being withheld out of privacy concerns — had endured a messy divorce and was fighting for custody of her daughter in February 2002 when in a moment of weakness, she responded to an ad in the publication India Abroad for services by “Psychic Shanna.”
That moniker refers to Shanna Young, which authorities said Miller used as an alias in her fortunetelling operation.
It all started with a $175 reading over the phone, and in the following days and weeks the victim, by her own admission in court documents, was becoming “brainwashed” into believing that her ex-husband was afflicting her with voodoo curses and that Miller was her only salvation.
Miller allegedly conned the woman into funding the purchase of expensive “mirrors, tabernacles, tassels, etc. which were made of gold and silver and needed to be imported from Italy and Spain … so that Peaches could ‘work’ with these materials and vanquish the ‘evil.’ ” The till would eventually amount to $838,390.
Miller also convinced her of baseless claims that ex-husband was abusing their daughter and that she “could not question the Spirit in this work” if she wanted full custody of her daughter and to keep her free from “negativity energy.”
From February 2002 to November 2010, the victim routinely wired money or sent Miller checks ranging from a few thousand dollars to as much as $70,000, with Miller’s promise that she was “blessing” the money in coffins and that the money would be returned. The victim extended her credit and took out home equity loans to keep up the payments and was so thoroughly under Miller’s control that “she didn’t make any decisions in my life without first obtaining her approval,” including selecting a new home, according to court documents.
“There’s a common thread of gaining a victim’s complete trust through carefully managed manipulation,” said Bourlard, the prosecutor.
That manipulation allegedly included Miller giving back $15,000 to the victim when she was in dire financial straits, which was a way of demonstrating “good faith” to keep the scam going, said Bob Nygaard, a private investigator who specializes in fortunetelling schemes and who helped build the case against Miller that was presented to prosecutors.
The ruse unraveled when Miller, seemingly sensing that her window was closing because the victim’s daughter was approaching adult age and no longer being subject to custody battles, hired a lawyer to coordinate a repayment arrangement, which Nygaard believes was a ploy to turn a criminal case into a civil matter. This aroused the victim’s suspicion. She hired Nygaard, whose case was presented to the FBI and then Santa Clara County prosecutors, who sought the arrest warrant.
“It’s more than $800,000,” Bourlard said. “We could not just walk away from this case, we had to do something about it.”