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A Florida woman, who claimed to be a gypsy fortune teller with “God-given powers,” was sentenced last week to 40 months in prison for scamming a Texas medical student out of $1.6 million.
Sherry Tina Uwanawich, 28, was convicted of one count of wire fraud in a psychic scheme that spanned seven years and took advantage of a troubled young woman, who supposedly paid the spiritual medium to help lift a family curse that Uwanawich had invented, according to an indictment obtained by Oxygen.com. The woman, who attended several sessions with the psychic and consulted her over the telephone, sent Uwanawich a small fortune over the course of several years.
“[Uwanawich] represented herself as a psychic and spiritual healer, with God-given powers, able to communicate with the spirit world and assist clients through personal difficulties,” the indictment stated.
The victim of the scheme, who wasn’t named by police, was grieving the death of her mother, coping with a recent breakup, and was enduring the stresses of medical school when she was conned by Uwanawich. She had supposedly been approached by the psychic at a mall in Houston, Texas in 2007. The woman, who had been crying, came out of a department store at the shopping center when Unwanawich came up to her and offered a free reading at her fortune telling parlor.
Uwanawich, who went by the fictitious alias “Jacklyn Miller,” told the woman that spirits had communicated to her that the victim’s family was suffering from a curse that had been passed on from the victim’s mother. This, she said, was the root of the “turmoil [and] strife” currently plaguing her personal life. Uwanawich promised to “restore harmony and balance” to the woman’s life.
Uwanawich then convinced the Texas medical student her family was in danger if she didn’t continue their “curse-lifting work.”
“The failure of the victim to continue to furnish more money or property to [Uwanawich] would result in the ‘work’ becoming undone and result in harm to the victim or [the] victim’s family, or loved ones,” the indictment described.
Uwanawich supposedly told the medical student that she often needed more money to purchase occult supplies like “crystals, candles, and the like,” according to a Department of Justice press release. The woman, prosecutors said, wired Uwanawich varying amounts of money over the years, often through Western Union.
In 2014, Uwanawich confessed the family curse wasn’t real, and instead proposed the pair write a book together exposing "gypsy culture" and the fraudulent ways of fortune tellers, but said first she needed $30,000 from the woman to secure a ghostwriter, which she promised to pay back upon publication, insisting they would make millions in revenue.
The Texas woman instead sought the services of a private investigator, who eventually brought the case to trial.
Aside from being sentenced to over three years in prison, Uwanawich has been ordered to pay $1.6 million in restitution for carrying out the fortune telling scam. But Bob Nygaard, the private investigator who investigated the case, was displeased with the ruling.
“I think it was wholly inadequate,” Nygaard, a former police officer who specializes in psychic fraud cases, told Oxygen.com.
Nygaard, who disclosed he’s helped prosecute roughly 40 different fortune telling fraud cases — and added he has another 40 in the works — assisted the Texas woman in bringing charges against Uwanawich. However, he doesn’t expect his client will ever be paid back the money she’s owed.
“What you have is self-proclaimed psychics gaming the criminal justice system,” he said.
Psychics, he explained, rarely keep assets in their name and hardly ever pay back court restitution orders: “If the defendant doesn’t have the ability to pay, then the victim never sees a cent of that money.”
Nygaard, who perhaps unsurprisingly, said he doesn’t “believe in psychic ability,” added he’s also worked with clients from New Zealand to Japan who have been duped by counterfeit mystics.
“It’s very common,” he said. “It’s going on all across the United States.”
When the Texas medical student was hoodwinked by Uwanawich, it was a vulnerable period in her life, Nygaard said. The woman’s mother had just died, her father had moved back to Brazil, she recently broke up with her boyfriend, and was facing the constant pressure of medical school exams.
“She was all alone,” the 57-year-old investigator said.
Nygaard explained that this targeted pattern of deceit is commonplace in many psychic fraud cases he takes.
“They will create a sense of dependency: ‘You have to trust me and only me — I’m the only one that can help you,’” he stated.
“They’ll exacerbate the victim’s existing fears, they find out what is bothering this person, and they exploit those fears for their own financial gain.”
Marlene Fernandez-Karavetsos, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida, declined to comment on the sentencing.
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