NEW YORK -- When a heartbroken ballroom-dancing instructor who had just lost a job and a lonely businesswoman with an unrequited workplace crush wandered into a fortune-teller's Greenwich Village shop, the soothsayer foresaw lucrative opportunities -- for herself, prosecutors said.
Conjuring past lives, divining "negative energy" and promising to banish problems through techniques such as stuffing thousands of customers' dollars in a jar, Sylvia Mitchell bilked the Singaporean businesswoman out of $128,000 and the Florida-based dance instructor out of more than $10,000, prosecutors said as Mitchell's grand larceny trial opened Thursday.
"It's one of the most humiliating things that's ever happened to me," dance instructor Debra Saalfield said in recounting how she tapped a credit line on her Naples, Fla., home to hand over $27,000 as a personal "test" to a psychic who said Saalfield had been an Egyptian princess in a previous existence.
The case, one of several against psychics here and elsewhere in recent years, probes at the line between selling a service, however unusual, and preying on hopes.
"This case is not about whether you believe in psychics," Mitchell's lawyer, William Aronwald, told jurors in an opening statement. The two women hired Mitchell to help them try to change their lives, and there's no evidence "that she did not provide the services that she was contracted to provide," he said.
But prosecutors say Mitchell, 39, seized on despair to peddle false promises of personal transformation.
"The defendant is not in the business of cleansing spirits. She's in the business of cleaning out bank accounts," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney James Bergamo said.
Saalfield, who runs a marketing business and competes in a ballroom dancing style called American smooth, said she had never been to a psychic before she went into Mitchell's chandelier-lit storefront, where she's billed as Zena the Clairvoyant.
After being buffeted by both a breakup and a layoff within a day in July 2008, "I needed some direction and guidance, and she said that she was pretty confident that she could help me," Saalfield told the jury. "I don't know that I thoroughly trusted her, but I wanted to listen to words of comfort."
After a $75 initial psychic reading, she returned the next week for a $1,000 version -- and was told her problems stemmed from being too attached to money in her royal life in ancient Egypt, Saalfield said. She knows of no Egyptian heritage in her family.
Mitchell's solution: Give her $27,000, just to hold, as an exercise in parting with money, Saalfield recalled.
She gave Mitchell the sum, started regretting it on the plane back to Florida and asked for a refund as soon as she landed. Mitchell said the money wasn't available, Saalfield said.
After trying unsuccessfully to stop payment on the check, she called police, had a lawyer write letters and hired a private investigator to try to retrieve her money. Mitchell ultimately gave back about $9,500, Saalfield testified.
Meanwhile, Mitchell cultivated an even more financially rewarding relationship with another client, Lee Choong, a Singapore native who earned a master's degree in business in New York, prosecutors said.
Far from home, Choong was juggling heavy professional demands with a personal problem: She had developed a romantic interest in a female co-worker, who didn't reciprocate, according to prosecutors and Mitchell's lawyer. Choong hasn't yet testified.
Choong's family didn't know of her sexual orientation, and she felt conflicted about being attracted to someone in her office, prosecutors and the defense said.
Mitchell said Choong was surrounded by "negative energy," and could exorcise it by putting $18,000 in a jar that Mitchell would hold, Bergamo said.
Choong ultimately gave Mitchell about $128,000 over two years, prosecutors and the defense said.
Mitchell repeatedly offered to repay Choong if she was dissatisfied, but Choong didn't ask for her money back, Aronwald said.
Psychic scams often go unreported and undetected, prosecutors said. Still, a number of fortune-tellers have faced criminal charges over their work.
Janet Miller, a Manhattan woman who claimed spiritual powers, pleaded guilty in May to grand larceny after being accused of swindling $600,000 from a woman by promising to rout evil spirits. She was sentenced to a year in jail
Another Manhattan fortune-teller, Tammy Mitchell, served two years in prison after a 2010 guilty plea to grand larceny and other charges. Charged with swindling a woman out of $40,000 by pledging to rid her of a curse, Tammy Mitchell is no apparent relation to Sylvia Mitchell.
And in Palmdale, Calif., a soothsayer was arrested for investigation of extortion in 2011 after allegedly persuading a 12-year-old girl to steal more than $10,000 worth jewelry from her family and throw it into a cauldron to lift a curse and appease evil spirits.